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60,000 reasons to put rail on Richmond

Railpop Dots-1
(courtesy Gulf Coast Institute)

In the Chronicle, Rad Sallee reported on one man’s quest to get the University Line on Westheimer instead of Richmond. Rad pointed out some of the problems with that idea, and so did Kuff. I feel no need to repeat all of that. In fact, I can sum up the advantage of Richmond over Westheimer in one sentence:

Greenway Plaza is on Richmond.

The single most important destinations for transit are major employment centers (including universities). Dense residential neighborhoods are important, and so are retail, restaurants, and entertainment. But for a transit line to be useful it must serve jobs, and Greenway is the fourth largest dense concentration of jobs (60,000 of them) in Houston, behind Downtown, Uptown, and the Texas Medical Center. Those are the big red blobs on the map above — and they’re all on METRO’s 2012 system.

Wes Mikulich, who prompted the article and created, is on the right track when he says that urban transit is different from suburban commuter transit. But then he misses the point entirely:

Greenway Plaza is mostly private offices. This means that the same people every day are going to Greenway Plaza during rush hour, which makes it ideal for regional commuter rail, not a local streetcar like the University line. Consider where workers may be commuting from — say, Sugarland, or the Woodlands, or if they live close, West University. The people who live in West University need to travel north on Kirby, Buffalo Speedway, Edloe, and Weslayan — a train running on Richmond simply won’t be able to service them. And the people coming from great distances need a regional transit solution, not a local one such as our University streetcar.

It may be true that the majority of the people who work in Greenway are suburbanites. But there are 500,000 people living inside the loop, and they work, too. No, they don’t work in the suburbs. And here’s the kicker: the population inside the loop is much denser than the population in the suburbs. There are quite a few people who work in Greenway and live in urban neighborhoods, and it takes fewer miles of transit to reach then than it takes to reach the suburbanites.

And the suburbanites who work in Greenway need urban transit, too. We can (and do) provide them with commuter bus service. But they will not take it if they need a car to do whatever else they need to do during the day. A meeting Downtown? An appointment at the TMC? Drinks after work in Montrose? Shopping at the Galleria? An opening at the MFA? If there is no way for them to do that stuff on transit, they need to take a car to work. For a suburban transit user, urban transit is their means of getting around during the day.

Finally, let’s look closer at Greenway. It’s not only a major employment center; it’s a major population center, with blocks upon blocks of apartments. Who lives there? Students at UH and Rice and Baylor College of Medicine. Young professionals who work Uptown or Downtown. The kind of people who will be able to use the University Line to do what they need to do anyway.

Here’s a graphic from the University Line DEIS that illustrates the point. It shows where Greenway needs to be connected to. Every dot is the opposite end of ten trips on an average weekday that either started or ended in Greenway. Ten Neartown residents going to work in Greenway in the morning would show up as one dot in Neartown. Ten Greenway employees grabbing lunch at Maria Selma would show up as another dot in Neartown. Ten UH students leaving their Greenway apartments to go to class would show up as one dot at UH:

Greenway Trips Small

The lesson is that most of the cars that you see on the street in Greenway aren’t going very far. In fact, as David Crossley has pointed out for a few years now, there’s actually a lot of trips from one major activity center to another (note all the dots Downtown and Uptown.) Suburban transit will serve those widely scatted dots at the edges of the map. We need urban transit to serve those dense clusters in the middle.

Should there be rail on Westheimer? Eventually, yes. Westheimer may be the best way to connect Uptown to Westchase, and there’s a lot of residential density as well as some office towers on the way. With current redevelopment plans, that density will soon stretch inside the loop to Highland Village. So rail on Westheimer may be next. But we need to get to Greenway first.

You should get to our forums with your thoughts.

Ghosts of transportation past

Some do archaeology with a shovel and a trowel, but sometimes a bike can be as useful a tool. Consider a rainy Sunday in Neartown, finding the ghosts of transportation past.

Ghosts Fairview

At the corner of Fairview and Taft is a pair of two-story business buildings. They seem incongruous: Fairview is a narrow two-lane street; the major artery here is Westheimer, only 5 blocks away. But this is transit-oriented development. This neighborhood was built around a streetcar line that ran from Downtown through Midtown (a residential neighborhood into the 1920s) and then out Fairview. One branch then turned south on Taft and ran to West Main on Hawthorne and Roseland; the other ran south on Mandell to Richmond. These stores, then, were where you got off the streetcar. The tracks were torn out in 1940. But their traces remain.

Ghosts Andersonfair

For the most part, the Montrose area has a continuous street grid. It wiggles a bit, but almost every east-west street is continuous. So why is Welch discontinuous at Grant, one block east of Montrose? We’ll have to go further back for that. In 1880, the Galveston, Houston and San Antonio Railroad built west from Houston. It run through the First Ward, then turned south along the edge of town, paralleling the future Montrose Blvd, crossing Main where 59 is now, and then skirting the edge of Hermann Park to Almeda before finally turning west along Holmes Road. Wealthy neighborhoods grew up along this line, and they grew tired of the trains.

Thus, for the first time in the history of Houston, political pressure persuaded a railroad to move its tracks. A new line was built far outside of town, running north south between an existing railroad line at Eureka Junction and the old east-west line southwest of Houston. The Montrose line was torn up; a bit lasted into the 1990s to serve the Robinson Warehouse and Ed Sacks Wastepaper. The replacement line is still there, but wealthy neighborhoods have grown up around it. So, next time you’re stuck waiting for a train in Highland Village or Afton Oaks or Bellaire, remember that those tracks were built in the middle of nowhere so they wouldn’t bother anyone.

Ghosts Alabama

As noted, the Montrose street grid wiggles a bit. Every major east-west street — Richmond, Westheimer, Fairview, West Gray — has at least one kink in in. But Alabama doesn’t. Why? The Texas Interlockers web site concludes that Alabama didn’t start as a street, but as a rail line, the narrow gauge Texas Western to Sugar Land. Since it was laid out at once (unlike the streets, which were built a few blocks at a time as part of multiple subdivisions) it’s straight.

There were once 3 rail lines in this area: the Galveston, Houston and San Antonio, the Texas Western, and the Southern Pacific running east-west where 59 is now (the same line whose abandoned right of way along Westpark is now owned by METRO). All three crossed each other near the intersection of Main Street and Blodgett. All of those tracks are long gone, but history repeats itself: the most important transfer station on our new urban rail system will be in more or less the same spot.

Ghosts Montrose

Montrose isn’t a ghost; it’s in the same place it was when it laid out in the early 1900s. But, like most streets, it;s had multiple lives. It started out as a residential street, lined with grand mansions. In the last 50 years, it’s become a commercial strip. A few of the homes, though, still survive, like the 1912 Link Mansion that now serves as an administration building for the University of St. Thomas. The trees up and down the street are a reminder of an older, slower, quieter Montrose.

All of us live among the ghosts of transportation past: decisions made 50 or 100 or even 171 years ago that still shape our lives today. It’s likely that the decisions we make today will last as long.

Share your own ghosts in our forums.

How is a bridge collapse like a mirror?

A lot of people are looking at the wreckage of I-35 in Minneapolis and seeing their own agenda.

An anti-globalization site says the the bridge collapse was caused by foreign trucks:

Evidence of increasing international trade truck traffic on Interstate 35 through Minnesota raises concerns that NAFTA Superhighway traffic contributed to last week’s collapse of the freeway bridge in Minneapolis.

WND has unearthed a Federal Highway Administration report dating back to 1998 that warned increasing NAFTA truck traffic was expected to create a safety concern with bridges in states along the I-35 NAFTA Superhighway, including Minnesota.

(thanks to Blue Bayou)

A 4/29 consipracy website is sure that the collapse was a controlled explosion, likely part of a vast conspiracy to blow up transportation infrastructure and making it look like an accident (their take on smoke in a subway station, no injuries: “There are 9 letters in ‘train fire’ and 11 in ’embarcadero’.”) It’s kind of anti-terrorism, I suppose — blowing up things in such as a way as to cause people not to be terrorized:

Don’t let eccentric conspiracy theorists persuade you that the only legitimate story is the official story. It may be too early to point fingers, but even the most cursory reading of yesterday’s news reveals questions that the authorities seem all too eager to simply dismiss.

The New York Times quotes a professional anti-rail “expert” who says the bridge fell down because of transit:

“Too many American cities are spending far too much money on expensive rail transit projects, which are used for only 1 to 2 percent of local travel, and far too little on highway projects which are used for 95 to 99 percent of local travel,” Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, said in an e-mail interview.

(via Overhead Wire, among others)

Our local anti-Metro activist, Barry Klein, is quick to relate Minneapolis to METRO (via an email from Barry quoting another email):

As I sit here in London, watching the Fox News report on the I-35 bridge collapse, I can’t help but wonder if Houston may be looking at a similar disaster, with the Pierce Elevated, due to Underground Stray Current Corrosion, caused by the Wham-Bam-Tram.

I actually have two degrees in civil engineering. I design steel structures for a living. I don’t know why the bridge collapsed. Neither does anyone else. We’ll know in a few months, probably. Engineers will do a lot of investigation and modeling to figure it out.

Forensic engineering is hard, and it takes time. Relating everything to your agenda only takes imagination. Feel free to try yours out in our forums.

Down the Line, again

In 2004, I wrote an article, “Down the Line,” for Cite in which I looked at the future of urban development along the nearly open Main Street light rail line. Three and a half years later, where are we?

Some parts of the Main Street corridor have changed dramatically. Others are still works in progress. The skyline along Main in Downtown and along Fannin in the Texas Medical Center has changed dramatically, and that change is continuing. In Midtown and the Museum District, change has been slower, and vacant lots remain. But no place along the corridor is stagnant, and the new development has largely been the kind whose residents, employees, customers, and visitors benefit from rail.

In 2004, we were at the end of a development boom Downtown. Four major new highrises — 1500 Louisiana, 1001 Main, 717 Texas, and Five Houston Center — had just been completed, along with six new hotels and several residential projects. Today, we may to be on the verge of a similar boom. A new residential Tower (One Park Place) and a three block retail/entertainment/office complex (the Houston Pavilions) are under construction. Two new office towers have been announced — Trammel Crow’s Discovery Tower and Hines’ new 47-story tower on Main Street Square. And plans were recently announced for the renovation of the old Lincoln Sheraton into a new Omni Hotel. All of these new projects are dense and pedestrian-friendly, and two of them are directly on the rail line.

Meanwhile, the University of Houston Downtown, with its new transit link, has grown rapidly, with a new building on Commerce Street and another under construction just north of I-10.

The Texas Medical Center keeps booming. Despite new hospitals in the suburbs and open land to the south and east, there is a huge amount of new construction in the dense core of the TMC, especially along Main and Fannin. In the past 3 years, 15 new highrise and midrise buildings have opened within a 1/4 mile walk of the rail stations in the TMC.

Like Downtown, the Museum District grew a lot in the 1990s and early 2000s. There hasn’t been a new museum since, but construction on Asia House will kick off soon, and there have been major renovations of two historic mid-rises.

As in 2004, Midtown remains a place of great promise, but that promise has been slow to materialize. Camden is still talking about apartments on the “superblock” at Main and McGowen, and the proposed mixed use project at Ensemble/HCC is now in the hands of a different developer but still hasn’t broken ground. However, Midtown is changing. Vietnamtown is getting less ethnic and more upscale, with three major retail renovations along Travis and Milam. The entertainment cluster around Ensemble/HCC has expanded a bit with the opening of T’afia.

As in 2004, I can count lots of proposed projects along the line: the two Midtown projects, more Downtown highrises and renovations, air rights development at Wheeler and the TMC Transit Center, a new midrise condo in the Museum Districtm a major Lovett Homes project at Fannin South designed by Andres Duany, and the redevelopment of the Astroworld site.

It’s tempting to argue whether all this new development was due to the rail line or not. Some is; some isn’t. But I think that argument is irrelevant. Rail is a way to move more people in limited right of way. It’s helping to absorb the additional travel demand caused by more density. And what’s happened along Main should dispell any doubts that rail discourages development or lowers property values.

There are two lessons to be learned from Main. The first is that the most likely places for more density are the places that are dense already. Activity feeds on activity. We can’t build rail in vacant places and assume it will make them dense. But rail will support more density in places that are already dense. The second is that the growth we’ve seen along Main has been organic. Of the post-2004 projects I mentioned, only Houston Pavilions has received city assistance. Government has provided infrastructure, but growth has come from market demand.

Below: a map of recent projects along the rail line. Everything shown either opened after the rail line did or is currently under construction. The flurry of projects that opened in 2002 and 2003 isn’t shown (though some were started after the rail line’s route had been chosen) and neither are proposed projects that haven’t broken ground, or single family residential projects. I’m sure I’ve missed some projects; please post additions or corrections in the forums. (Click on the map for a larger version.)

What’s your walkscore?

Montgomery tries to quantify something that I’ve known about everywhere I’ve lived: how walkable is it? They measure how far it would be to walk to various essentials and amenities like stores, restaurants, libraries, and parks and come up with a score. 100 means you can get almost anything you’d need within walking distance; 0 means you’d need to drive to do everything. They readily admit that their measure is insufficient — it goes off of as-the-crow-flies distance, and it doesn’t know where sidewalks are or how busy streets are or if there are trees. But it’s a fascinating look at where we live. My life, expressed in walkscores:

  • House, Kensington, CA: 43
  • House, Pinole, CA: 9
  • House, Pinole, CA: 32
  • Sid Richardson College, Rice: 49
  • Student housing in London, England: they don’t measure internationally yet. But it was really close to 100.
  • Summer sublet in Washington, DC: 88
  • Apartment complex near the Astrodome, Houston, TX: 46
  • Apartment in Neartown: 77
  • Apartment in the Museum District: 74
  • Apartment in Gulfton: 58
  • Townhouse, Montgomery, AL: 71
  • Downtown Condo: 91

Those measures are pretty good. The highest ranked places are those that I walked the most in. If you’re surprised to see Montgomery rank so high, keep in mind that we lived in the one cool neighborhood there. Within three blocks: a grassy, tree-shaded park, a great pizza place, a coffeeshop a one-screen independent movie theatre, and a Win-Dixie. But I really missed living in a big city. Rice ought to rank higher, but walkscore doesn’t count on-campus services. And Gulfton’s narrow sidewalks with cars whizzing by should cost it some points. In fact, all of Gulfton’s flaws can be explained by Walkscore’s great primer on what makes a neighborhood walkable.

What’s your walkscore? Tell us in the forums.

8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines *

20 U.S. cities have commuter rail lines; others are talking about opening commuter rail. Should they? The best way to answer that question is to figure out what commuter rail does well. Those other cities can give us a good idea of why successful commuter rail systems are successful.

Here are eight criteria for the perfect commuter rail line. Only a few lines meet all of these. But nine of the top 10 commuter rail systems in the United States meet at least seven.

1. The ideal commuter rail line improves on current transit options.

This seems obvious, but it’s worth remembering that transit on steel wheels is not automatically better than transit on rubber tires. Commuter trains are big, so in order to fill them they can’t run more frequently than every half hour during rush hour and maybe every hour during midday, and they need to stop at multiple stations to fill up. Also, unless there happens to be an existing rail line right in the middle of an employment center, most riders will need to transfer to get to work. All of that is worth it it your other option is buses stuck in freeway traffic, but not if you could take a reliable non-stop bus that uses reserved lanes.


2. The ideal commuter rail line makes use of unused rail capacity in a corridor where highway capacity is scarce.

The way to implement commuter rail quickly and cheaply is to find a freight rail line that isn’t heavily used, so only relatively minor upgrades are needed to get trains running. Where freight rail lines are already busy, adding passenger trains means adding tracks, and that can get expensive, particularly when the right of way the tracks are in is narrow.


3. The ideal commuter rail line serves more than commuters.

Rush hour only service is not an effective use of equipment. On some lines, each set of locomotive and cars makes only one trip inbound in the morning and one trip outbound at night. That’s not much benefit from a $9 million piece of equipment. A route that has ridership during the day, in late evening, and on weekends will get more use out of the same equipment and infrastructure.


4. The ideal commuter rail line has a city at each end.

If there’s an employment center at each end of the line, you’re serving two rush hour commuter flows. You’re also serving a whole other kind of trip: people traveling from one city to another.


5. The ideal commuter rail line offers good connections to multiple employment centers.

Not everyone works Downtown. For example, Houston has least four other major employment centers in the urban core: the Medical Center, Uptown, Greenway, and UH. People who work in those places should have access to good transit, too.


6. The ideal commuter rail line serves long trips.

The biggest advantage of trains over HOV or HOT lanes buses is comfort. A train has a smoother ride, wider seats, and the ability to get up during the trip. Commuter trains can also offer work tables, power outlets, wifi, restrooms, and an onboard coffee counter. These things don’t matter on a 20-minute trip. But they really make a difference on a 1-hour trip.


7. The ideal commuter rail line connects to local transit.

Commuter rail can only go where railroad lines are. That means most riders will need to connect to another mode of transit on at least one end of their trip. To For connections to major activity centers, that needs to be high quality, frequent service, not just local buses. But it’s also important to have transit service in other places, to allow those who can’t drive to get to the stations.

8. The ideal commuter rail line has stations you can walk (or bike) to.

Transit is inherently pedestrian-oriented: there’s no way to have a car waiting for you at both ends of your trip. Having a car waiting at one end — park-and-ride — works, but it’s inherently inefficient, not only for the transit system that needs to provide 200 square feet of pavement for each passenger but also for the passenger who still needs a car to use the system. Putting stations where people can walk to them — not just at employment centers but also in suburban communities — works better for everyone. You still provide parking lots, but you don’t need to provide them for everyone.


Some examples:

The most successful commuter rail systems in the United States — New York, Chicago, Philadephia, Boston — are over 100 years old. They meet all of these criteria. They have an unfair advantage, though, because cities and towns grew around them. The Downtown stations are really Downtown; the suburban stations are in small town downtowns; and the systems use high-quality infrastructure — often separated from freight rail — that dates to the 1920s or earlier.

So let’s consider more recent successes. Caltrain stands out. It’s been around for a long time, too, but it’s experienced dramatic ridership growth in recent years: 18,000 in 1985, 32,800 today. Why? It connects two major employment centers — San Francisco and Silicon Valley — so northbound and southbound passenger flows are nearly matched. It stops in lots of places where people want to go: small town downtowns with stores and housing, Stanford University, San Francisco airport. That creates all day demand, and Caltrain meets it with all day service: first train at 4:30, last train at 10:30, and trains at least every at least every 30 minutes. It connects at 5 stations to 3 different urban rail transit systems. And — last but not least — it parallels an extremely congested highway on a double- and triple- track rail line with virtually no freight traffic.

Another success is Virginia Railway Express, which connects Northern Virginia suburbs to Washington D.C.. It’s blessed with excellent station locations in the suburban office centers of Alexandria and Crystal City and two stations right in the Downtown core. Many of its suburban stations are in small town downtowns. It also has excellent connections to the subway system (at four stations) and comprehensive local feeder bus service.

The biggest commuter rail system implemented in the United States since World War II is in Los Angeles. MetroLink has seven lines, generally shared with freight rail but considerably upgraded and improved. It’s a truly regional system, with lines reaching as far as 90 miles from Downtown LA, connecting to cities like San Bernadino, Anaheim, and Oceanside. It also has local transit connections: the vast majority of MetroLink riders transfer to the Red Line subway to get from Union Station into the Downtown office core. MetroLink also connects to another commuter rail system — San Diego’s Coaster — and to frequent Amtrak service to San Diego and Santa Barbara. MetroLink’s biggest asset, though, is incredibly congested highways.


Extreme Transit Makeover: the Trip Planner

Trip planners, like maps, are an essential part of making transit easy to use. METRO was late in this regard; they finally got theirs online in 2005. That’s a big improvement. But it’s not enough to have a planner; it needs to be easy to use and give good results.

The state of the art in transit planners isn’t from a transit agency at all; it’s Google Transit, now available for 12 cites. Like Google Maps (which it’s based on) it will take location inputs in many formats — street number, street intersection, city name, zip code, even airport code. It put out easy to follow directions. And the route is plotted on a map that can be zoomed and panned:

Trip Plan Google Small

Compared to Google Transit, Metro’s trip planner is intimidating, inflexible, unattractive, complicated, and terse:

Trip Plan Metro Small

But the real problem with the METRO trip planner isn’t the interface; it’s the results. Here’s my list of things to fix:

1. Call the rail line by its real name.

Tripplan 700

How do I get from Preston and Main to Fannin and Binz? By the 700. What’s the 700, you might ask? It’s the Red Line, also known as the Main Street Line, but the transit planner isn’t smart enough to call it that. Nowhere else does METRO call the Red Line the 700 — not on maps (there it’s the “R”) or on schedules, or even on the trains — the numbers on the front read “701” or “702” or “708” or even “720.”

2. Don’t tell me to ride a bus for two blocks.

Tripplan Short

My preferred route: walk 3 blocks block to light rail station. METRO trip planner suggestion: walk 2 1/2 blocks to bus, ride bus 2 blocks, walk 1 1/2 blocks to light rail. Huh?

3. Know that riders don’t want to leave earlier to arrive later.

Tripplan Longer

In this case, the first trip suggestion is good. Then, as the third choice, it offers a trip that takes 4 and a half times as long as long, and gets to the destination at the same time. Huh?

4. Guess better.

So I want to take the bus to Texas and Main. So I type in “Texas & Main.” The Trip Planner’s best guess? Texas and Main in Beasley, TX. That’s in Fort Bend County, outside of the METRO service area and about 20 miles from the nearest bus route. Options 2 through 5 are four names for the same intersection, also outside METRO’s service area. Option 6 is in Willis, also not served by METRO. Option 7? Texas and Main, Houston, TX. Finally.

Trip Plan Guess-1

5. Favor rail over bus.

I do not know a METRO rider who would prefer to take a bus if he can take the train for the whole trip. But the Trip Planner will often show a bus even if the train only involves a block or two more walking. In this case, the rail trip is actually less of a walk; in theory, the bus will get there 4 minutes early, but that’s if it’s running on time. The train is easier to use and more comfortable, and if you miss it, another will be along soon. Why is METRO recommending the bus?

Trip Plan Busrail

6. If there’s no result, tell me why.

Trip Plan No Result

If the Trip Planner can’t find a trip, it delivers a generic error message. It would be much easier if it said why: “Sorry. The last bus of the day is at 7:05 pm” or “Sorry. There is no Sunday service to this location.” or “Sorry. Beasley is not in the METRO service area.”

7. Show me a real map.

The Trip Planner shows a map that looks like this:

Tripplan Map


8. Give me a backup.

In the perfect world of the Trip Planner, buses always arrive on time. Not in the real world. If the Trip Planner gives me 5 minutes to transfer from one route to another, there exists a distinct possibility I will miss my connection. What happens then? Please tell me when the next connecting bus will be along, just in case. While you’re at it, tell me how likely the bus is to be late.

Tripplan Transfer

9. Give me a personal schedule.

Most of my METRO trips are between the same two places — home and work. But they aren’t always at the same time. The Trip Planner knows enough to give me a list of departure times and arrival times for those two stops all day long. I’d print it and put it in my wallet. I bet I’m not the only METRO rider who would like one of those.

10. Tell me how much it will cost.

One nice point about Google Transit: it shows the fare for the trip.

11. Get Google.

Obviously, METRO needs a better trip planner. They should fix their own with better results and a friendlier interface. The may be able to get many of the same benefits, though, by going to Google. Google doesn’t charge agencies; they actually specify a format for providing data on their web site. Google Transit doesn’t have to replace the current trip planner; it could simply be another option. The good news is that METRO is considering getting on board (look for Mary Sit’s comment at the bottom). They should.

Comments? That’s a simple route: click here to go to our forums.

The right to photograph *

Baltimore Night Train

A minute after I took this picture, an officer of the Maryland Transit Police stopped me. He told me that I was not allowed to take photos of the trains. He called for backup. They arrived a few minutes later, blocking the tracks with their cruiser: 3 uniformed, armed men to deal with one photographer. They questioned me. They called headquarters and ran my driver’s license.

One officer told me that because of 9/11, I needed to be careful. I mentioned the Constitution. He said that the First Amendment “did not apply” in a time of war.

It’s natural for police to be careful. I appreciate that. I’ve had officers in Houston, San Francisco, New Jersey, and San Francisco greet me politely, ask me what I was doing, and wish me a good afternoon.

But we all have a right to take photos. Photos are a means of documentation, and documentation is fundamental to a free society. Photos show injustice, prove wrongdoing, and record history. Throughout World War Two, hobbyists continued photographing trains. The result is a lasting chronicle of the hard work American men and women put into the war effort. I won’t pretend any of my transit photos are that significant. But my photos do document what public agencies do with public money in public places. I paid for part of the Baltimore light rail system; I have a right to know what it looks like.

The Constitution was on my side, not the officer’s. Common sense was on my side, too. If someone has the skills to make a bomb and the messed up mind to want to set it off, they don’t need a photo to blow up a train. They just need to know where the nearest station is. If I did want to attack, would I be calling attention to myself by wandering around in the open, blatantly showing a camera?

METRO is deploying extra security for the Fourth of July. I’m glad they’ll be there. But it’s important that (unlike the cops in Baltimore, or the transit police in Atlanta who held me on top of a parking garage and told me I could call my wife but not tell her where I was, or the security guard in San Diego who said I could not take photos while the train was in a tunnel, or even the train operator in Newark who said the click of my shutter was a safety hazard) they remember that they are here to protect our freedoms, not ignore them.

Have a happy Independence Day.

More on photography rights:


Extreme Transit Makeover: METRO system map

I had a rant all ready to go about the METRO system map. Then METRO fixed the map — not just what I was going to complain about but a lot more — without me saying anything. You can look in the forums see my original post. But now I’m going to talk about the new map.

Here’s the old map, dating back to 2005:

Here’s the new version:

Colors Metro New-1

The first, most obvious change is the bus route color coding. On the old map, all local routes were the same color. Now, bus routes are in a least half a dozen different colors. That makes it a lot easier to trace a bus route across the map.

The other major improvement is on the light rail line. On the old map, it was as thick as the bus lines, but a different color: purple. That was an odd choice for the Red Line. On the new map, it’s a thick, red, dashed line. It stands out among the bus routes better, shows up well on the overall map as well the Downtown/Midtown and Texas Medical Center detail maps, and matches the name of the line. The same graphic style can also extend well to more lines in 2010 and 2012.

The importance of a good transit map is obvious: it’s how riders will figure out which route to ride. A good map makes the transit system easier to use. The new map is a significant step forward in that regard. Could it be improved? Of course. Some ideas:

Better station symbols.

Metromap Stations

The black rectangles on the map don’t stand out well anyway. More importantly, they’re missing an important piece of information. Over half the stations on the Main Street line have different platforms for northbound and southbound trains. The map should show that. More prominent symbols, with directional arrows, might work better:

Metromap Stations2

Parking information.

Metromap Park1

Where can I park and ride? At a park-and-ride lot, obviously, but some transit centers have parking, too. A little parking symbol would distinguish those:

Metromap Park

And, while we’re at it, how about bikes? Some transit centers and some light rail stations have bike racks; let’s mark those:

Metromap Bike

Bus route frequencies.

Metromap Frequency 0-1

Not all bus routes are created equal. A bus that runs every 15 minutes (like the 2 Bellaire) is very different from one that runs every 45 (like the 34 Montrose). METRO publishes a bus route frequency guide; a condensed version on the printed map would be helpful. But that information could also be on the map itself. For example, a thick line might indicate a bus that runs at least every 15 minutes during rush hour and at least every 30 minutes off-peak. A thinner line would indicate a bus that runs less frequently.

Metromap Frequency-1

Get it out there.

Right now, the map is available in three places: a pdf online, a paper copy in RideStores, and a posted in transit centers. Putting it in more places would make it more useful: rail stations, on buses and trains (perhaps as a window sticker, facing inwards?), and bus stop shelters. Some of those could be customized maps: in Downtown Washington, D.C., the bus maps posted on shelters show where that bus stop is on the map and highlight the routes that run there. In these days of cheap full-color digital printing, that’s not hard to do.

Metromap Dc

Here’s hoping that the bus map will continue to evolve to be more useful. Where do you think it should go? Tell us in our forums.

Smarter maps *

1306Church Small

There’s an atlas on my bookshelf. What’s the last time I used it?

Online maps just keep getting better and better. New from Google: street views. You can “walk” down a street and pan around. I’ve never been to Denver. But I now have a good idea of what their light rail looks like at street level. Also on Google: San Francisco‘s light rail system (that’s the J Church above) and Miami‘s Metromover. There are only 5 cities online, but I’m sure more are coming.

All of this has made getting around easier. But it’s also made it easier to be an informed citizen. Aerial maps were once the province of transit planners; now we can all get that, any time of day, from the comfort of our own desk. And the public has more power.

All of this has been made possible by private companies. When government agencies put map data online, the interfaces tend to be clunky — compare HGAC’s 2035 RTP project viewer to Google Maps. Google’s transit planner is better than any I’ve ever seen on any transit agency web site. Most agencies haven’t even made it as far as interactive maps. One wonders when they will learn for DC’s WMATA and use the private sector tools. If they don’t, the public will do it for them, like William Bright did for transit maps on iPods. Now agencies like WMATA and METRO are following suit.

Somewhere down the road is an interactive planning process where the public can draw lines on maps and see data: how much right of way does this street have? How many jobs would a station here serve? What’s the traffic count here? This isn’t to say we don;t need planners — we do. But computer tools will make planning less of a black box and more of a true community process.

Online mapping is already making it easier to get around on the infrastructure we have. Soon it will help us build better infrastructure.