Posts in Category: Alignments and Destinations

Major League Rail part II


Organizers are calling this week’s Super Bowl XLVIII the “First Mass Transit Superbowl.” That’s fair; no other Super Bowl has gone so far in promoting mass transit for fans getting to the game. But transit access is the norm for NFL games these days. The first Super Bowl to be played within walking distance of rail transit was IV in New Orleans, and 10 years ago Houston opened its first light rail line just in time for the Super Bowl.

We tend to think of baseball as a downtown sport and football as a suburban one. That’s true to some extent; there are quite a few cities (San Diego, San Francisco, ) where the baseball team plays downtown and the football team is in the suburbs, surrounded by big parking lots. But there are actually more cities where both baseball and football are downtown, and even one (Atlanta, always the oddball) where baseball is in a suburban setting (and moving to a more suburban one) and football is downtown. Moreover, many of the cities where football is in the suburbs still have rail there. The final score: 72% of NFL teams play within walking distance of rail, nearly as many as the 77% of MLB teams that do. As with baseball, the biggest factor in that increase has been the opening of new rail lines, not teams moving to rail. That includes three teams — the Patriots, the Jets, and the Giants — that have gameday-only commuter rail lines to their stadiums.

The most visible difference from baseball on this graphic: football teams move more often. But the last time a team moved from a stadium with rail to another city that didn’t have rail (or rail in the works) to the stadium was the Raiders in 1982 — and they moved back to their old  stadium in their old city a little more than a decade later.


Major League Rail: part 1


In the past two decades, the United States has seen a boom in ballpark construction. Two thirds of the current Major League Baseball venues were opened in the last 20 years. The expectations of what a ballpark looks like have completely changed. And so, it seems, have the expectations on how to get there. In 1970, 38% of baseball parks had rail transit access; by 2016 it will be 77%.

Part of this change has been driven by baseball returning downtown. In San Francisco, for example, the Giants replaced a suburban stadium surrounded by parking lots with a downtown ballpark next to existing commuter rail and light rail lines.

But they real change in rail to baseball has been the opening of new rail lines. That was happening as early as the 1970s in Oakland and Philadelphia, but it really picked up pace in the 1990s. In St. Louis, Minneapolis, Houston, Seattle, and Arizona, the city’s first rail line included a stop near the ballpark. Some of this is coincidence: the national trend has been towards downtown ballparks and rail systems invariably connect to downtown to serve its employment base. It’s also an index of just how common rail transit has become: once Cincinnati’s streetcar opens, the only city that has major league baseball but no rail transit will be Milwaukee. But baseball is often featured in the discussion around planning new lines. It is one of the destinations that politicians and transit planners focus on.

Does it make sense to build transit to baseball? Logistically, sports venues are the worst kind of transit destination: most of the time, there are no riders, and every once in while, there are very many. A major employment center, a college, or a hospital will do much more to drive ridership. However, sports tends to add riders on weekends and evenings, when stations have capacity and spare trains are available. More significantly, perhaps, serving a ballpark draws occasional riders to the system. If they have a good experience, they might ride more often or, equally significantly, vote “yes” in the next transit referendum. A rail line built to serve only sports is hard to justify as a use of public dollars (just as stadiums themselves can be hard to justify), but if a stadium is on the way to other destinations it will make a rail line more successful.

Regardless of merit, the connection between baseball and rail seems to be well established. The Atlanta Braves’ future move to the suburbs is an anomaly, just as their current ballpark, close to downtown but surrounded by parking lots and a long way from rail, is. The last team to move their home away from rail was the Phillies in 1971, and an extension to their new stadium was already in the works.

(Coming soon on Intermodality: football, basketball, and hockey on rail.)





The Train to the Plane

When a city plans a rail new transit system, it is almost inevitable that a connection to the airport is included. That’s a reflection of the importance of plane travel, which has become ever cheaper and more widely used. But it’s also a product of transit politics. Many rail planners have discovered that the numbers don’t seem to justify such a connection; employment centers generate many more riders, and bringing  a rail line into an airport is often complicated and expensive. But the public sold on airport connections; someone who takes the train to the airport every few months has as many votes as someone who rides to work every day.

The first rail connection to a U.S. airport was Cleveland in 1968. That station was directly inside the airport, setting a pattern for systems to follow. This remains the “holy grail” of airport rail connections. Probably the best example of the type is at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, where the station was built as part of the terminal, an escalator ride away from baggage claim and closer to the ticket counters than the parking garage. Elsewhere, stations were included in the basements of parking garages (Chicago O’Hare), slipped in alongside drop-off lanes (Philadelphia) or tunneled below the airport (Minneapolis).

Unlike Atlanta, many airports have multiple terminals. This design tailors to cars, distributing traffic and putting the drop-off lanes closer to the gates. But it’s hard for accommodating transit. Philadelphia solved the problem by putting  a station at each terminal; a train to the airport stops at each one in turn. That’s even harder to engineer, though, than a station inside one terminal, especially at airports that have grown haphazardly. A more common solution is to use an automated people mover to link to terminals to a single transit station. Many airports are adding such people movers to connect terminals to each other (important in an era of airline alliances, where many passengers transfer from one terminal to another) and to parking lots and rental car centers. Once such a system exists, it’s not hard to extend it to a rail transfer station. People movers, with small vehicles suited to steep grades and tight curves, are easier to fit into an existing airport. Even more importantly, they make it easy to link existing rail lines to the airport, as has been done at New York’s airports.

Nothing is less expensive, though, than operating a shuttle bus to the airport from a nearby rail station. This is by far the most common air-rail connection. The shuttles usually run frequently, directly from the station to the terminals, and they are indicated on rail maps and timetables. In some cases, a shuttle bus is a temporary measure until a rail extension or people mover is built, but other airports – like Boston – have used such connections for years.

Even the most convenient rail connections, though, serve only a portion of airport passengers. Even at National Airport, with a convenient connection to one of the most comprehensive rail systems in the country, only 15% of passengers ride rail. In Atlanta and Chicago, that figure is under 10%. There are many reasons for this: passengers with a lot of baggage will not be willing to walk to stations or negotiate elevators and crowded train cars, downtown-centered rail systems will cause trips from other suburban locations to the airport to be much slower than cars, and travelers arriving in an unknown city are more likely to be comfortable with hailing a cab than using a rail system they do not know, regardless of how comfortable it is. But airports are employment centers as well, and airport employees may be more likely to use transit than passengers are.

International travelers know that U.S. airport connections are somewhat lacking by international standards. In London and Hong Kong, non-stop trains connect downtown terminals with airline check-in counters directly to the airport; in Paris and Frankfurt airport rail stations serve not only local transit but high-speed and conventional long-distance trains to all parts of Europe. But such connections are coming to the U.S., too. The Newark airport rail station is the first direct rail-airport connection on Amtrak’s busiest rail route. Continental Airlines had now added Amtrak to its list of airline partners; air passengers can now book a “flight” segment from Newark to Stamford, Connecticut which never leaves the ground.



The train to the terminal
Washington Reagan National Airport’ convenient rail connection (top) resulted not from building a station next to the terminal but from building the new terminal, opened in 1997, next to the station, built in 1977 under the airport’s master plan. Trains run every 3 minutes, and it’s only a 12-minute ride to Downtown. Baltimore-Washington International (bottom) is served by an at-grade light to a stub-end station at one end of the terminal. A separate shuttle bus connection leads to an Amtrak and commuter rail station.


The train to the people mover
People movers are not as convenient as a station in the terminals. But sometimes that convenience is illusory. San Francisco went to great expense to fulfill politician’s promises to put BART inside the airport. The line branches in two; one route extends to a the airport while another connects to a commuter rail (Caltrain) transfer station just outside the airport. But the station is inside the international terminal only; the domestic terminals are a long walk — or a short people mover ride — away. Thus, most passengers transfer to the people mover anyway. Meanwhile, Caltrain passengers headed to domestic flights must transfer to BART, then transfer again to the people mover. Bringing all BART trains and the people mover into the commuter rail station would have been no less convenient for most BART passengers, more convenient for commuter rail passengers, and a good deal less expensive. In fact, that’s exactly what Miami will be doing.

These diagrams are all to the same scale.


People movers reach out
In New York City, where Continental Airlines has a hub in Newark while Delta runs shuttle flights from LaGuardia and Jet Blue is based at JFK, airlines compete on ease of access to each airport. When Airtrain Newark (upper left) opened in 2001, Continental began advertising the new, convenient connection to Manhattan in ads, on its website, and in its inflight magazine (lower left). Airtrain Newark is a single monorail line that connects every terminal to a remote parking lot and to a station serving Amtrak intercity trains and New Jersey Transit commuter rail. It’s the most convenient Amtrak to airplane connection in the Northeast.
The Airtrain JFK connection, built at the same time as Newark’s, is the most extensive airport to transit people mover ever built. One branch runs three miles from the terminals to the Howard Beach subway station; the other nearly five miles along the Van Wyck Expressway to the connected subway and commuter rail stations at Jamaica.
In New York, where the airports are run by a bi-state authority, rail access was a political issue; New York’s approval for Airtrain Newark was contingent on building a similar system at JFK and vice-versa. La Guardia, the smallest of the three metro airports, remains without a rail connection, although before 2001 Delta Airlines offered fast ferry trips to Manhattan.
The train instead of the plane
Amtrak’s Acela Express, which stops at the Baltimore-Washington airport rail station, isn’t just a way to get to the plane: it’s a replacement for the plane. Amtrak carries more people between New York and Washington than all the airlines combined, and that market share is increasing as air travel gets more complicated. In Europe, high speed rail lines in France, Germany, Spain, and Britain have replaced short-haul flights, freeing up airport capacity for long-haul flights.

Airport rail connections in the United States

(Includes direct rail connections, connections via people movers, and connections via dedicated shuttle bus from station near airport. Does not include regular local bus service or longer-distance airport bus service that may happen to connect to rail.)


airport mode system connection operating comments
Boston heavy rail MBTA shuttle bus 1952- rebuilt 2004
Cleveland heavy rail RTA station in terminal 1968-
Oakland heavy rail BART shuttle bus 1972-2014
Washington National heavy rail MetroRail station in terminal 1977 – connected to new terminal in 1997
New York JFK heavy rail New York Subway shuttle bus 1978-2003 shuttle bus connection to dedicated express train service from Manhattan 1978-1990; shuttle bus connection to regular trains 1990-2003
Baltimore commuter rail, intercity rail MARC shuttle bus 1980-
Chicago O’Hare heavy rail CTA station in parking garage near terminals 1984- terminal 5 connected with people mover in 1993
San Francisco commuter rail Caltrain shuttle bus ???-2003 in service by 1997
Philadelphia commuter rail SEPTA station each terminal 1985-
Atlanta heavy rail MARTA station in terminal 1988-
Palm Beach commuter rail Tri-Rail shuttle bus 1989-1997
Fort Lauderdale commuter rail Tri-Rail shuttle bus 1989-
Miami commuter rail Tri-Rail shuttle bus 1989-1998
San Jose light rail VTA shuttle bus 1991-
San Jose commuter rail Caltrain shuttle bus ????
Burbank commuter rail / intercity rail Metrolink / Amtrak station connected with open walkway 1992-
South Bend commuter rail SouthShore station in parking lot 1992- primary purpose is not airport connection but use of airport parking lot as park-and-ride
Chicago Midway heavy rail CTA station connected with covered walkway 1993-
St Louis light rail MetroLink station at ea. terminal 1994- station at East Terminal opened 1998
Los Angeles light rail MTA shuttle bus 1995-
Chicago O’Hare commuter rail Metra shuttle bus 1996- shuttle bus to people mover
Baltimore light rail MTA station in terminal 1997-
Miami commuter rail Tri-Rail shuttle bus 1998-2012
Dallas-Fort Worth commuter rail Trinity Railway Express shuttle bus 2000-
New York JFK heavy rail / commuter rail New York Subway / Long Island Railroad 2 stations with people mover connection 2003- replaced shuttle bus
Newark commuter rail / intercity rail New Jersey Transit / Amtrak station with people mover connection 2001-
Portland light rail MAX station in terminal 2001-
Anchorage intercity rail Alaska Railroad station connected to terminal with pedestrian tunnel 2003- used for chartered cruise ship train only
San Francisco heavy rail BART station in one terminal; people mover to others 2003-
San Francisco commuter rail Caltrain BART shuttle to ariport 2003-2008 airport connection now requires double transfer
Minneapolis – St. Paul light rail station at each terminal 2004-
Milwaukee intercity rail Amtrak shuttle bus 2005-
Oakland intercity rail Amtrak shuttle 2005-2014 uses same shuttle bus as BART connection
Phoenix light rail Valley Metro shuttle bus 2008-2013
Seattle light rail Link station connected with covered walkway 2009-
Providence commuter rail / intercity rail MBTA/Amtrak station connected with covered walkway 2010- Amtrak trains will pass through station without stopping
Dallas Love Field light rail DART shuttle bus 2010- station in terminal was studied but rejected due to cost
Miami commuter rail, heavy rail Tri-Rail, Metrorail people mover 2012- replaced shuttle bus
Phoenix light rail Valley Metro people mover 2013-
Dallas-Fort Worth light rail DART people mover 2014-
Oakland heavy rail / intercity rail BART, Amtrak people mover 2014- will replace shuttle bus
Denver commuter rail RTD station in terminal 2016-

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.



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 Tale of Two Subways *

In the Houston Chronicle this past weekend, David Crossley and I made an argument for urban rail. We said that rail transit that serves dense employment centers, neighborhoods, and non-work destinations is more useful and more cost-effective than rail designed only for suburban home-to-downtown work trips. Further more, we argued, urban rail serves suburban commuters as well.

Want some more evidence? Rail transit projects don’t come with control groups — we can’t clone a section of a city, build two different rail lines, and compare the results. In this case, though, there’s an interesting comparison to be made between two remarkably similar rail systems.

San Francisco is in the 5th largest metropolitan area in the country. Washington DC is in the 4th largest. Both cities have old, urban cores with major employment centers surrounded by extensive post-war suburban development. In the 1960s, both decided to build a heavy rail system. And not only do those two systems use very similar technology, they are nearly the same length (104 miles vs. 106 miles).

There is one significant difference between San Francisco’s BART and Washington’s Metrorail, though: Washington has 2 1/2 times the ridership (902,100 average weekday boardings compared to 338,100.) Why? I’ve lived in both places, and I’ve ridden both systems. And I think the difference is that BART is primarily a suburban system while Metrorail, even though it serves the suburbs as well, is at its heart a urban system.

What do I mean? Let’s compare.

  • BART serves the suburbs. Metrorail serves the suburbs and the urban core.
    BART’s furthest station is 25 miles from downtown SF as the crow flies, across two small mountain ranges. Metrorail’s furthest station is 15 miles from the center of DC.
    BART has a single line through the city of San Francisco. It serves Downtown and one urban neighborhood, the Mission. BART does not serve San Franciso’s densest neighborhoods on the north side of the city, which have no high-capacity transit (the Geary Street bus carries 50,000 trips a day, but there’s no rail in that corridor), nor does it serve major destinations like the UCSF medical center or San Francisco State University. Metrorail has 5 lines through Washington, serving many neighborhoods in all parts of DC. Metrorail also serves many more suburban employment centers than BART does.Most of Metrorail’s riders are from outside DC. But even suburban park-and-ride riders benefit from Metrorail’s urban connectivity. If you work in DC but outside downtown you can still take the train; the same goes if you work in a suburban employment center like Crystal City or Silver Spring. And if you work at any of those places Metrorial offers you mobility during the day, to go to meetings, get lunch, go to a doctors’ appoinment, take evening classes, or go to dinner with friends before heading home.On the maps below, yellow is the urban core (San Francisco and DC). Red is the downtown employment core. Orange dots are stations serving other employment centers. (Both maps are to the same scale; click on each to see a larger version).BART is left; Metrorail is right.

  • BART saves money by using existing rights of way; Metrorail maximizes ridership by puting lines where the transit demand is. The yellow highlighting represents BART lines built along existing railroad tracks or freeways; the purple lines are tunnels under natural obstacles. That leaves only the San Francisco subway, a two-station subway in Downtown Oakland and a three-station subway in Berkeley. The latter — which serves the University of California along with Downtown Berkeley — was built only because the city contributed money; BART planners wanted to put the station a mile from the edge of the UC campus. Metrorail uses some existing rail lines and a Virginia freeway corridor, but the majority of the system is in subway alignments that serve neighborhoods and employment centers. Its planners repeatedly spurned existing rights of way for parallel alignments often less than a mile away that go where the people are.

  • BART stations are where the cars are; Metrorail stations are where the people are. The vast majority of BART stations are car-oriented. The “typical” BART station is an elevated structure surrounded by park-and-ride lots in a low-density neighborhood. Over half of Metrorail stations, by contrast, don’t even offer parking. These stations serve employment centers (urban and suburban), universities, neighborhood crossroads, and residential areas. On the map below, the area of each station dot represents ridership at that station. Blue dots are stations with parking lots; red dots are stations without parking. Note the high ridership at Metrorail’s parking-less stations. And note that even though BART stations are much further apart than Metrorail stations, they typically have less ridership. The bottom line: 54% of the people boarding BART in the morning came by car compared to less than 45% of the people boarding Metrorail. Over the course of the day, over 60% of trips on Metrorail start with the passenger walking to the station.

BART and Metrorail may look alike. But they are fundamentally different systems. BART was conceived as an alternative to suburban commutes. Metrorail was conceived as an urban rail system. BART, in other words, tries to serve 2 trips a weekday, and Metrorail tries to serve every trip, every day. It’s no accident that it carries 2 1/2 times as many trips.

Metrorail has another less quantifiable achievement to its credit. Everyone I know who visits Washington ends up marveling about the subway system. Why? Because they found it useful. So do the people who live there, and they find it hard to imagine the city without it. Washington, a city with no rail transit and a declining bus system 30 years ago, now has a transit culture. I spent a summer in DC, living in an apartment near the Friendship Heights station and working at the National Building Museum, just above the Judiciary Square station. Everything I wanted to do — go to work, go home, shop, see a play, go to the museums, go to the park — I could do by Metrorail. Transit planners made the right choices 30 years ago, and my daily life was better for it.