Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Metro: Lack of Foresight or Realized Vision?

Since moving to Washington almost a year ago, I have heard many criticisms of the Metro. I will be the first to admit that many of these are warranted--in fact, I've done some of the criticising. But I'm also one of the first people to come to WMATA's defense when it comes to ill-informed or undeserved criticism.

Too Few Tracks?

One of the more common complaints, especially with the rapidly increasing ridership, is the lack of a four-track subway downtown. Just last week I had a conversation where WMATA's designers were cursed for not planning for the ridership seen today. I can't fault them, however.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and that is precisely what this criticism is. If we consider, however, the foresight it took in the early 1960s to even consider a subway, we should be applauding WMATA's designers. When all this Metro talk started, the corpses of Capital Transit's streetcars weren't even cold yet and transportation planners wanted to build a subway?

Heavy Rail systems in the United States can generally be broken into two categories: Modern and Pre-Auto Age.

Pre-Auto Age:
Modern Systems:
I make this distinction because the characteristics of these systems are very different. Cleveland's Red Line was the last gasp of the pre-war systems and would preceded almost two decades of subway (and urban) decline in the United States. However, by the 1960s planners had big ideas for how to revitalize America's metropolises. In 1972, BART opened, the first of a new type of "rapid transit." Marked by an acronym, and notably absent the "subway" moniker, BART was designed for the space age. And it came just in time for the first Oil Crisis.

BART and the systems to follow it were designed based on an entirely different premise than were the earlier subways. With the modern systems, the goal was to give suburban commuters an alternative to driving. These systems were marked with long distances between stations, higher speeds, comfortable seats, and most importantly, a sea of parking at outlying stations.

The earlier systems, contrastingly, were designed with the pedestrian in mind. Stations were close together, resulting in slower speeds but with the advantage of reaching more pedestrian patrons. These systems had shorter cars, designed for tight corners in the built-up urban areas they served. Rarely did they venture into the suburbs and almost never included parking.

Of the seven early (pre-auto) systems, only three include express tracks somewhere in their systems. The most extensive set of express tracks lies in the New York City Subway. There, many of the lines are complimented with express service in the peak direction or in both directions. In Philadelphia, the Broad Street Subway includes express trackage for most of its length. The Chicago L offers express service on the Purple Line during rush periods (and a short stretch of the Red south of Belmont). These three cities are the densest three cities in the United States over 1 million in population (in the order NYC, Chicago, Philly). This is not a coincidence.

Of the six modern systems, only the Washington Metro comes close to a ridership threshold where express (or 4-track) service becomes cost-effective. Look at Metro's counterparts. The systems constructed in the 1970s (BART and MARTA) both garner about 300,000 riders a day, the 1980s systems (Balto, Miami) get around 60k. The main point to be made here is that Metro was far more successful than anyone ever imagined it would be. It's the exception rather than the rule.

Why? Let's come back to that question later.

Let us return to the 1960s and 70s. Think big hair. Think disco. Imagine a Washington in turmoil. Fresh out of the freeway fights that pitted suburb against central city, the feds against the locals, neighbors against neighbors. Fresh from the smoke and rubble left after the 1968 riots. Already jobs were starting to follow residents to the suburbs. In America, cities were changing dramatically.

From this viewpoint (the 60s/70s), Metro is an alternative to driving. It is not a way to redefine the way people live. It will never be able to compete directly with the automobile on the automobile's turf. These heavy rail projects were a last-ditch efforts to save central business districts. No one expected any of these projects to rival the older systems.

Think about the position in which these planners found themselves. Considering the three-state makeup of the region, it is amazing we even have Metro. The funding problem is perhaps one of the most complex in the nation and a four-track subway would have roughly doubled the cost of the system.

Given that, had planners pressed for a four-track system, Metro would either be half the size it is today, would have taken twice as long to build, or would have been killed outright. The debate we're having with the Tysons/Dulles Silver Line right now is case-in-point. Already the project has been sliced and diced in terms of frill, and it's still in danger of not being funded. If things like redundant elevators and the familiar hexagonal tiles might be enough to kill the project, can you imagine the reaction of UMTA (now FTA) if Virginia demanded four tracks?

No. We cannot fault Metro's designers on the four-track front. Politics is the art of the possible, and thanks to their hard efforts we, unlike many cities that were considering heavy rail in the 1970s, actually built our system. And we finished it. Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Miami never achieved their full transit vision. Even here the belt-tightening Reagan years contributed to an extended construction period. Metro was supposed to be finished by 1983, but it wasn't actually complete for another 18 years. Not until the Green Line to Branch Avenue opened in 2001 did the dashed lines on the Metro map turn solid.

Too Many Frills?

And why is Metro so undeniably successful when her counterparts carry mere fractions of her ridership?

One of the factors, I think, is the system's ambiance. Which is, of course, one of the criticisms I hear a lot of these days. People have suggested saving money in all sorts of ways, including removing the carpet and second-guessing the characteristic station vaults.

Safety was considered of the utmost importance in getting people to ride. Planners were afraid that columns would provide places for criminals to hide and that claustrophobic, dark stations would make passengers feel too threatened. To counter the image that many had of subways, designers opened a breathtaking space above the platforms. They included indirect lighting to emphasize the space and to leave the vaults untouched (the station signs were added later).

The designers of Metro had a lot to think about. They also had a lot to live up to. This is, after all, Washington and the people in charge, notably the Commission for Fine Arts, were not going to stand for anything less than stellar. They demanded vaults at all the stations and called for continuity throughout the system.

And continuity they got. From the floor tiles to the lighting, there are a series of common themes running throughout the first-generation stations. Metro changed many of these with the newer stations that go beyond the Adopted Regional System: Florida Avenue, Morgan Boulevard, and Largo. Still, these stations link the region together. It doesn't matter whether in Virginia, DC, or Maryland, the stations received the same type of architectural treatments to bind the varied parts of Metropolitan Washington.

Plus, this continuity also saved money in many cases. The Connecticut/Wisconsin Avenue Subway (Red Line toward Shady Grove) is bored through solid rock. In this case, the vaults were the most economical type of construction--that's why Atlanta's Peachtree Center Station resembles the Metro.

Additionally, since everything from the light fixtures to the paint is the same throughout the system, economies of scale are easily achieved. With Metro's counterparts each station requires its own supply of spare parts. In the MARTA system, for instance, an architect only gets to design one station.

As for the trains, Metro's designers thought that they'd need to lure drivers out of their cars. In that regard, they added padded seats--and plenty of them. They installed carpet in the trains and cleaned it regularly. Graffiti was not tolerated--trains are still taken out of service to be cleaned when graffiti is spotted.

Padded seats are common among the modern systems. Only MARTA and LA's Red Line don't have cushioned seats, and MARTA used to have them, as reported yesterday. As for carpet, the 70s era systems all had it. MARTA only recently started to pull it up, and now the trains are much louder. Carpet, you see, has an acoustical dampening affect which I value on Metro's trains. They already seem louder than what I was used to in Atlanta. So even though it's a bit more expensive, I think keeping the carpet is worth it.

And let's not forget the best perk of them all--air conditioning. Atlanta stopped air conditioning their stations several years ago, but the trains and buses still keep the cool air flowing. In Washington the subway stations and trains have kept theirs. And trust me, summers in Washington are harsh enough to warrant the expense.

The seats I can do without. They are nice and cushy, but they also cost a bit to replace and often don't match the carpet on the older trains. I would even support removing some seats to give standees more room, but there has been a lot of pushback from the more exurban riders. And that's expected. Metro was designed for long trips from the suburbs. Stations like Shady Grove and Franconia are beyond the Beltway and many drivers might chose to drive if they don't have a guaranteed place to sit.

Regardless of these issues, however, Metro's designers did something right. Perhaps the design just speaks to some subconcious feeling. If designing public parks in a certain way can influence their usage, why not assume that designing a feel-good metro station would encourage riders to take transit?

More Discontent

Sunday's Post had more Metro criticisms. In this article, criticises WMATA's use of escalators. Originally, Metro intended for all vertical movement to be made using escalators. The courts forced them to install elevators and money eventually forced them to start putting in stairs. What's wrong with escalators though? Even when they're broken, you can still walk up them. And when they work (which is most of the time), they're the most efficient way of moving people through a station.

As for the custom rolling stock argument, BART's cars were far from proven. As Dr. Gridlock rightly points out, they only have two doors per side and in the early 1970s their motors kept doing the disco inferno. Besides, the use of broad gauge might be best for 'Frisco, but Metro's use of standard gauge actually allows for more interoperability than BART.

And let's not forget that every rapid transit system has its cars made to spec. The only modern exception is the Budd Universal Rapid Transit Car used on both the Miami and Baltimore Metros. Both of those systems were being built at the same time and because they were both small systems, the car order was easy for Budd to accomplish. Washington and Atlanta did have some overlap with construction, but not enough to go in on a car order together. MARTA's cars ended up being extremely late anyway. The East Line was ready to open in late 1978, but there weren't enough cars, so the system opening was delayed until June of 1979.

But despite complaints, people continue to ride Metro. In larger numbers than ever before, as a matter of fact. Hopefully, Washingtonians will continue to put up with Metro's design "flaws" and understand when unforseen circumstances disrupt service. What's most important however, is that we fix what we can and plan for the future. Complaining about the lack of a 4-track Red Line won't get the M Street (Blue) Subway built.


fpteditors said...

Before the Metro was built the anti-transit roar was deafening. The end of free enterprise was predicted. Can you dig up any of those speeches and post them?

Andy said...

Nice blog - thoughtful, informative.
Pittsburgh has a subway too - where's the love??

Matt' said...

You are quite right that Pittsburgh's Light Rail System has subway segments. I've ridden them.

But Light Rail is not Heavy Rail and is therefore not directly related to the modern/historic heavy rail policy debate framed here.

Other LRT systems with subway segments include:
San Francisco Muni
Philadelphia Subway-Surface Lines
Buffalo Metrorail
Boston T: Green Line
Los Angles Metro Rail (Blue Line)
Saint Louis Metrolink
Seattle Link (under construction)

Sorry if I've left any out.

Squalish said...

Re: 4-tracking...

The largest tunnel boring machines are now about 15 meters in diameter, just enough to run four Metro tracks in a single tunnel (two on top, two on the bottom) with safety tolerances.

Would using one of those for all new deep-tunnel boring in the DC area be a big leap in expense?

Matt' said...

I should point out that I'm not an engineer. I have heard that large-bore TBMs can be cheaper than other forms of tunneling, but they also have limitations.

They need the right soil and geologic conditions to work. I don't know if Downtown Washington meets those criteria or not.

They also are typically very deep. This is unattractive for downtown stations. The long escalators at Wheaton are fine for a trickle of morning commuters, but would be quickly overwhelmed by the herd of commuters at places like Metro Center. With deep tunnels, each access point is very expensive. That's why most of the Red Line stations along Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues have only one exit each.

Additionally, while the TBM might be able to bore 4-tracks in one tube, stations would still need to be cut-and cover since the boring machine isn't wide enough to carve out platforms in addition to the four tracks. If the stations are deep (as mentioned above), this may be technically infeasible or cost-prohibitive.

However, I'm not being a naysayer. If large-bore TBMs would work for a Metro project, I would be all for them.

Still, this post is about the past. In the 1960s these machines did not exist. So yes, building a 4-track subway in the 1970s would have been a massive leap in expense.

We can't replace the existing downtown subway system now, but we can build relieving lines elsewhere in the urban core. Perhps we will see fit to build them as 4-track, perhaps not. Only time will tell.

But let's remember one thing:

Politics is still the art of the possible, and WMATA will find it difficult to justify, under the current transit-building scheme, any major transit investment; let alone a 4-track subway.

Major changes are needed in the way we study, plan, study, design, study, build, and study transit projects, and until those changes are made, transit investment will continue to suffer in the United States.

Danny said...

Wow, terrific post.