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Four Rules for Transit-Oriented Development from Five leaders

8:11 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

This week’s Sunday Train features a piece from John Karras’, How Your City Can Succeed In Transit Oriented Development. John looks at DC, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City and Cleveland to argue that your city can also succeed in pursuing Transit Oriented Development:

Here are the 4 key ingredients needed to create successful transit oriented development:

  • TOD Ingredient #1: Connect dense employment centers
  • TOD Ingredient #2: Regional collaboration
  • TOD Ingredient #3: Proactive planning and public policies to encourage TOD
  • TOD Ingredient #4: Public-private partnerships for joint development

This is an important argument, and ties in with many themes address in previous Sunday Trains, including Sustainable Real Estate Development is Good for the Economy and Other Growing Things (30 June 2013), Trains & Buses Should Be Friends (24 Nov 2013) and ‘the successful communities are going to be the ones who get rail.’ (1 Dec 2013), so join me below the fold for the most recent consideration of these issues and Transit-Oriented Development, commonly abbreviated as “TOD”.

Connect Dense Employment Centers

It is, of course, due to many decades of most American cities gutting our existing local transport alternatives that this is an issue. If we hadn’t discarded what we already had, we would be looking at how to leverage access into our densest employment centers into more effective regional transport alternatives.

But where the trunk backbone does not exist, then it must be provided. John quotes Transit Oriented Development and Employment from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (pdf) saying:

Real estate development is more likely to occur in station areas that are within close proximity to major employment centers. Therefore, if transit is planned in a way that makes strong connections to significant employment centers, it can also promote residential TOD in places on the transit corridor where commercial uses are less likely to locate. Understanding this relationship between employment centers and residential TOD is an important part of the TOD equation. (p. 27)

It is easy to read this as “connecting to downtown”, but that is just one version of what makes a major employment center. Whether downtown area or not, what is key is the clustering of employment. To quote further from the study:

Employment dispersal away from traditional central business districts can work well with transit operations, even in suburban locations, but only if employment remains clustered in relatively dense concentrations with appropriate transit service, parking controls, and placemaking provisions. It might be necessary to change the way we think about employment, from urban versus suburban, to more of a model of dispersed versus concentrated nodes. Places with high employment densities can be served with transit networks and made into places that can provide people with amenities during the lunch hour that foster more non-auto trips.

So the distinction here is not “downtown” vs “suburban” but “concentrated employment centers” versus “dispersed employment”.

It is an open question as to what the next step should be after those corridors are provided for. I have argued that the same kind of government intervention that has generated sprawl development of both residential and employment centers can be reversed in strategic locations to re-orient suburbs into a more ecologically sustainable clustered development system … and this argument suggests that doing so will also open up greater opportunities for TOD throughout urbanized areas and into their hinterlands in a metropolitan area.

Regional Collaboration
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The Ends of Amtrak

9:02 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

At the beginning of last month, Paul Druce of “Reason & Rail” discussed the possible impact of the pending upgrade of the Amtrak Acela route in Acela II is the path towards Amtrak operational self-sustainability:

The forthcoming Acela II isn’t just supposed to be significantly faster than the current Acela service, cutting 24 minutes from the scheduled time between Washington and New York and 38 minutes between Washington and Boston, but it will also represent a significant boost in capacity. …

With an increase in seating capacity, Amtrak will be able to garner significantly more revenue, even if it lowers the price of Acela seating somewhat. This added revenue comes with no significant increase in operational cost and quite possibly a lowered cost, as there should be a higher rate of availability and lowered mechanical costs for what is essentially an off the shelf train, along with significantly lower energy consumption. With current averages for occupancy and passenger revenue unchanged, an Acela II train service could see $742 million in revenue, with $447 million in operational profit.

This will have an even larger effect upon Amtrak’s financial deficit than initially appears because starting in FY2014, the states bear a greater responsibility for the short distance train corridors. This had the affect of reducing Amtrak’s FY2014 budget request to only $373 million for the operating grant; 2013’s appropriation, by contrast, was $442 million.

Note that what Paul Druce refers to as “operational profit” is what I have been calling “operating surplus” in the Sunday Train, the surplus of revenues from operations over operating costs. This is nothing like an operational profit, at present, since a profit is a financial benefit from a difference between revenue and costs, and there is nothing in the current organization of the Acela services that make a surplus on their operations into a distinctive financial asset for any purpose … whether public or private.

Whether or not all or part of this operating surplus should be made into an operational profit is a question that goes to the heart of what is the purpose of Amtrak. The way that this surplus is spent can be the means to service a range of ends … but what are the ends that are a legitimate use of these means?

Since Amtrak was established, and exists, as a political compromise, this is not a question about what is the proper “End” for Amtrak activities, but what are the proper “Ends” for Amtrak activities.

The Amtrak Tripod

Amtrak originated, and survives, as a political compromise, with both operational and political complementarity between the three legs of the Amtrak tripod:

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‘the successful communities are going to be the ones who get rail’

7:41 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

In covering the upcoming vote on the planned North Metro Rail line in Denver, the Denver Post writes:

People and circumstances over the years have tried to change the gritty image of Commerce City. There have been high-end homes on its eastern border and a world-class soccer and concert stadium not far from the city’s oil refineries, and even an attempt to wipe the city’s industrial name off of the map and replace it with the more low-key moniker of Derby. But it may be a stop on the Regional Transportation District’s North Metro Rail Line that brings some shine to the center of the city.

They quote the Commerce City Mayor:

“I’m very optimistic about the commercial opportunities that come with transit-oriented development,” said Commerce City Mayor Sean Ford. “Once rail comes, we can develop around it, and I think it will be highly beneficial.”

… as well as the Adams County Commissioner and Chairman of the North Area Transportation Alliance:

“In our world, the successful communities are going to be the ones who get rail,” said Adams County Commissioner Erik Hansen

And on Tuesday night, the Metro North line was approved, for a 2014 start and 2018 completion, when it had been previously set back to 2044 (an oddly exact date that clearly meant, “not now, but maybe later”):

A spontaneous offer from Graham Contracting in February stepped up the plans for the North Metro line after the company teamed with three other private developers and gave the Regional Transportation District’s board of directors a viable, ambitious construction plan, said RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas.

A side note
As some of you may be aware, there has recently been a fatal derailment:

A New York City Metro-North passenger train bound from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central Station derailed at 7:20 a.m. in the Spuyten Duyvil section of the Bronx borough this morning resulting in multiple fatalities.

This is not the topic of today’s Sunday Train, as the accident is too recent for a clear picture to have emerged as to the underlying causes of the accident. However, if it turns out that either delayed maintenance or delayed investment in Positive Train Control was a contributing cause to the accident, today’s topic would indeed be quite relevant to preventing a recurrence.
Colorado on a Fast Track to Local Rail Transport

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Trains & Buses Should Be Friends

7:36 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

The Salt Lake Tribune adopts the familiar mode-warrior framing in comparing rail and upgraded buses, typically called “BRT” for “Bus Rapid Transit”:

The Utah Transit Authority figures the many new rail lines it opened in the last three years attracted $7 billion to $10 billion worth of new development near stations as a side benefit to improving transportation. Since it spent $2.4 billion on those lines, it sounds like a good return on investment.

But a new study says governments get even more bang for their buck in revitalizing areas if they instead build “bus rapid transit” (BRT) systems. While far cheaper to construct, they attract just as much development.

… which elicits a measured response from the UTA:

The UTA says there is no need for buyer’s remorse for its new TRAX, FrontRunner and streetcar projects — because they do more than revamp areas. But UTA adds that BRT is a focus of its future plans. It is sort of a TRAX on rubber wheels where buses have exclusive lanes, passengers buy tickets from vending machines before boarding on platforms, and buses have priority at intersections.

The “odds and sods” system in the US for funding transit improvements encourages this type of mode-warrior framing … which mode delivers more:

  • … bang for the buck
  • … diversion of motorists to transit
  • … Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction
  • … development impact
  • … reduction in the annual slaughter of Americans by motorists
  • … amenity to the rider
  • … farebox revenue
  • … (and etcetera and etcetera) …

And that framing for studies like the one that the Institute for Transport and Development Policy is presently promoting, claiming that BRT delivers 31x the bang for the buck that rail does.

If Silver Bullets Existed, We Would Really Want To Pick The Right One …

This is not a new frame, and Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic addressed it in 2011 in The Silly Argument Over BRT and Rail, reacting to parallel BRT vs Rail articles in the Toronto Star and Wall Street Journal:

This is a sensationalized opposition between two modes of transportation that should be thought of as complementary. There are advantages to improved bus service in some corridors, reasons to support rail in others.

What is clear is that for the majority of American cities — excluding only a few in the Northeast — buses will remain the predominant mode of public transit for most riders, even after major expansions in train networks planned for cities from Charlotte to Phoenix. So even cities that choose to invest in rail projects must also spend on the improvement of their bus lines.

Nor is the difference in costs between rail lines and BRT nearly as great as some would argue. The Journal article quotes Dennis Hinebaugh, head of a transportation center at the University of South Florida, saying “You can build up to 10 BRT lines for the cost of one light-rail line.” That might be true if you’re comparing a train operating entirely in its own right-of-way with a bus running in a lane painted on the street. But a streetcar is probably cheaper than a busway. Just ask Hartford, whose busway project will cost $60 million a mile to build.

It should surprise no-one who has seen the Great American Suck-Up Industries in action ~ the Military-Industrial Complex, the Prison-Industrial Complex or the Publicly Subsidized Private Schools racket, among others ~ that rail construction costs in the US are typically substantially higher than in other high income countries around the world.

And given the approximately $7,500 per person subsidy for the road transport system ~ between explicit subsidies, hidden subsidies, cross-subsidy and direct costs such as pollution impacts on health ~ it is no surprise that a BRT system that can tap into some share of that subsidy can come at a lower “cost to buy” for a city or region.

From the perspective of sustainable transport, neither of these are facts of life to accept. They are both problems to be solved. We must push for making mode choices based on the full economic costs of all alternatives, including the full economic cost of the “just build more roads for more cars” alternative which is often falsely treated as cost-free.

But more broadly, outside the competitive mode-choice setting for a particular project, we have to work for a transportation policy that gives cities and regions full freedom to take advantage of the naturally complementary bus and rail systems.

And, given the point that Yonah closed on, when similar claims were being pushed over two years ago, giving full freedom to take advantage of that complementarity may be most important for establishing the BRT systems that our towns and cities deserve:

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Will We Be Ready for the Great 2017 High Speed Rail Policy Unlock?

7:30 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

I’ve posed a question in the title of this week’s Sunday Train that I have no intention of answering myself.

The first thing you may have noted is that the title presumes a “Great 2017 Policy Unlock” that is by no means certain. And assuming an event in a title as a lead-in to talking about the likelihood of that event is a long-standing internet link-bait practice.

The second thing, however, is that even that would be focusing on political fortune telling, and the Sunday Train is not normally about making guesses about what will happen. It is more often focused on policy in the sense of thinking about what should happen and, sometimes, what we can do to make it more likely to happen.

The foundation of the Sunday Train is the premise that on our current track, with our current transport and energy systems, we are driving the possibility of retaining a national, modern, industrial economy over a cliff. We are doing that in three ways:

  • Our Energy Production and our Transport Systems combined are responsible for a majority of our CO2 emissions, and even if we converted everything else in our economy to be 50% carbon negative ~ sequestering 50% as much CO2 as it present emits ~ our current Energy and Transport systems would be sufficient to drive the globe far enough into Climate Crisis to bring down our national industrial economy;
  • And the world has hit Peak Petroleum Production, as is clear from the variety of “scraping the bottom of the barrel” oil and oil-replacement exploitation efforts taking place today, and has started to slide down the other side of the peak, so that an economy as exposed as our own to oil price shocks is going to lose massive ground compared to competing economies that are already positioned to shelter themselves from the impact of oil price shocks
  • And we are heading toward the Energy Return on Investment cliff for the fossil fuels we produce ourselves that our current Energy and Transport systems relies upon, and as we slide down that cliff, the economic benefit of that domestic fossil fuel production will progressively decline, leaving us behind any national economies or continental economic systems that seriously pursue sustainable, renewable energy sources that are seeing growing Energy Return on Investment, due to technological progress.

Pick your poison, since any one of them is serious enough to either drive the US economy from the ranks of the core economies into the ranks of the semi-peripheral economies, or even to eliminate our ability to retain a national economy at all.

Given that premise, the “odds of success” in a political forecasting sense is not the focus of the Sunday Train. The focus is rather the prospect for improving those odds. Whether that is improving the odds from a 50% chance of success, or a 1% chance of success to a 2% chance of success, in either event it is worth the investment in effort to try … whether the mere 1/5 improvement in the odds, or the more impressive doubling in the odds, what is won in the event of a win is such a jackpot that its worth the effort to simply improve the odds a little bit.

High Speed Rail Is Not Dead Yet

Atlantic Cities have an article, “How Republicans Killed America’s High-Speed Rail Plan”, which notes:

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