Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Subway for the Prairie

This post is the seventh in a series of posts I am writing about lessons planners could learn from Canada. My recent trip showed me North American cities that have done a better job of managing their urban fabric than is typical south of the 49th Parallel.

It has been quite a while since I last penned an entry for this series. I've been swamped with work and also have focused on other topics for Track Twenty-Nine. Anyway, in this episode, my journey across the continent has reached the capital of Alberta and the end of my trip on Via.

Edmonton is a medium-sized city on Canada's plains. With one light rail line, it was my first chance to ride rail transit since leaving Toronto, some 2000 miles eastward. When the system was opened in 1978, it was the first city in North America under 1 million in population to build a light rail system. The system is one of the first-generation of modern light rail systems.

Unlike many light rail systems, in Edmonton, a subway was constructed downtown to keep transit riders from being stuck in traffic. While the outer segments of the line operate like typical light rail lines in North America, with grade crossings, the central subway certainly saves time.

In Baltimore, the north-south light rail was constructed in a transit mall, but cross traffic often delays trains. The Red Line is a proposed east-west light rail line through central city Baltimore with a proposed subway section in downtown. This is certainly a more reasonable approach to light rail, one I hope isn't killed by the "cost-effectiveness" criteria of the FTA.

Incidentally, another time-saving approach that Edmonton took was to make all stations high platform boarding. Without the stairs typical of earlier light rail systems (including Baltimore), passengers find it easier to board and alight.
I think Edmonton's approach demonstrates a foresight in transit planning which will benefit the system for years to come. Even though the system is still relatively small, the subway will make core capacity less of an issue as it expands. Costing less should not be the primary criterion for a good transit project, even though it seems to have been for many years in the United States.

Perhaps with an Obama stimulus package, we can build more of this sort of high quality transit investment.

Other modern light rail systems with downtown subways/stations:
  • Buffalo
  • Cleveland
  • Los Angeles
  • Pittsburgh
  • Saint Louis
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle (under const.)


Anonymous said...

Minor nitpick: Buffalo does have a subway, but their one and only light rail line actually runs in a transit mall in downtown, then goes into a subway further out, a most unusual arrangment, altough there's some logic in that.

Anonymous said...

You forgot that Denver has light rail in downtown...

Matt' said...

Anonymous (2),
You are correct. Denver does have LRT downtown, but it's not in a subway, as far as I can tell.

The point of this post was to say that cities will have better performance if they bury LRT in congested central cities.

There are lots of cities with modern light rail who didn't bury it. Some examples:
*San Diego
*San Jose
*Salt Lake City

John Curran said...

You forgot Boston!
Boston's Green Line is the oldest subway in North America. It runs light rail both under- and above-ground.

Matt' said...

I didn't forget Boston either. But the Green Line is by definition not a modern LRT--it's the oldest in America.

Sure it might have modern vehicles, but the subway was constructed before the 1970s, so it doesn't compare with Edmonton. You also won't find Philadelphia, Cleveland, or Newark on my list either.

Thanks for pointing that out though. I suppose I should have been more clear.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I did find Cleveland on your list. And I don't see why you'd really want to exclude Boston, Philadelphia, and Newark. The subway portions are what made their light rail systems so successful, and kept them alive to reach our modern era. Most systems without downtown subways weren't so lucky, although two of the ones that did survive, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, did so partly as a result of building downtown subways in the 70s.

Matt' said...

You make a good point about older systems and subways. I don't discount their importance, nor do I deny their existence.

The point of this post was to talk about planning lessons--in this case when planning a LRT system, planners should build a subway downtown. The era in which Boston and Philadelphia built their streetcar tunnels was very different from these days, so I didn't list them.

The only reason I listed anything at all was because if I used a subway example from Edmonton as an example for American planners, people would tell me that American cities have built LRT subways--since Edmonton did so. So I listed a few.

I'm not excluding Boston or anybody else from any kind of analysis. But in a peer to peer analysis it would not be comparable to Edmonton.

Not everybody who had a subway kept their streetcars. Rochester killed off it's LRT subway and Cincinnati never finished its--it is still down there though.

But places like Baltimore had streetcars in the past--just like San Francisco and Pittsburgh. And while Baltimore's disappeared for some time, when they built a modern system they did not bury it--resulting in delays.

Since Boston didn't have to rebuild their system, they never had the opportunity not to bury it--that's why it's not exactly relevant to the discussion about cities that are thinking about starting LRT systems from scratch in the post-WW2 era.

But I'm glad you bring up historical information like this. It shows that planners could look even further into the past to see what was successful.

You also make a good point about preservation. One of the reasons that both Pittsburgh and San Francisco kept their streetcars is because they had tunneled or private ROW sections that were not easily convertible to bus. Of course, that didn't stop the destruction of Los Angeles's systems.

But even though some cities kept parts of their streetcar systems, most of the systems were cut back, even in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. The existing systems there are only shadows of the historical networks from which they were derived.

Thanks for all the comments, I had no idea that this particular post would generate any. It's never the ones I expect.

Rollie Fingers said...


First, excellent blog. I'm in Baltimore, but I find your take on transit issues very enlightening.

While I agree that, ideally, LRT lines would be tunnelled in dense Downtown areas, there are some legitimate concerns for the future of such projects.

One, Downtown tunnelling always seems to cost far more than originally thought. I know that tunnel-boring technology has become quite advanced, but it's nearly impossible to know exactly what you'll find when you dig under what is generally the oldest part of a city.

Two, signal-preemption technology has also come a long way. It has shaved a reported five minutes off the Baltimore Light Rail's journey through Downtown (from two miles in an abysmal 18 minutes to a significantly better 13 minutes).

I know it's a cliche to hold Portland up as the Mecca of modern transit, but as budgets get tighter, and traffic control devices get better, could it be more efficient, long-term, to forgo tunnelling and instead put some serious effort into providing signal priority for trains?

What do you all think?

While I don't have data handy to back these points up, I hope their core validity will be self-evident.

Matt' said...

I agree that signal priority can help things greatly at reduced cost, but it's still not as good as subway. But I suppose you take what you can get.

Charlotte has done an excellent job with signal priority, however it does not share a lane with traffic at any point. I was very impressed with how quickly the train travelled to downtown.

I did a post on my Charlotte trip, located here:

Better signal timing would go a long way to improving the Baltimore LRT (there's room for improvement), but in the long run, I'd love to see it buried, at least from Mount Royal to Camden Street.

JimS said...

Signal priority still limits maximum speeds of vehicles. They are required to go slow because of the threat of tresspassers, stuck cars, etc. It really only goes so far.

With a grade-separated right of way the vehicles can reach their maximum speed.

Which actually raises another point -- LRT vehicles are rather obnoxiously slow even when they are in their own ROW. In the U.S. LRT is often used to cover distances of many miles, yet the trains are limited to 55mph typically. This does not make them look good when drivers on the freeway next to them zoom past the relatively pokey trains.

This is especially noticeable in freeway medians, like in the southern parts of San Jose's system, or on the Green and Gold lines in L.A. Unless there is a traffic jam, the trains look pretty bad in comparison to the private vehicles flying by.

This is especially annoying in San Francisco's Twin Peaks Subway, which has *TWO MILES* between Castro Station and Forest Hill Station. At best the trains go 55mph, but they seem to be limited to 35mphs on most days. This is a fairly silly limitation on route that is long, straight, level, and has no obstructions or cross traffic whatsoever.

If we continue to insist on building systems that combine tram-style street running with metro-style subways and grade-separated runs (in the case of the L.A. Green Line, 100% grade separated!), we need an emphasis on the development of vehicles that can manage 100-110mph, yet still be able to function in street operation.

Matt Fisher said...


What about this? There was a streetcar subway under Dupont Circle in where you live now. Baltimore once had a streetcar "El". (I have this linked from a pro-LRT site based in Austin, Texas, which I often look to in my LRT support).

By the way, of all the cities you listed in your first comment, there is one station in a city with light rail that is in a subway, in comparison to the rest of the stations, in San Diego, Dallas, Minneapolis, and Portland. Of course, these are all outside downtown. So is another you didn't include, Jersey City, where a station on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (Bergenline Ave in North Bergen) is in a tunnel. :)

In Cleveland, light rail runs on shared track with the subway. Later on, this was used in Amsterdam on the Metro, where an LRT, or "Sneltram", line shares track with Metro lines for part of the journey, and in another part, in the south, it shares track with one of the many tram lines there. This would be really interesting to look at. It's also done in Rotterdam and Oslo.

Matt J. Fisher
Ottawa, Ontario