Saturday, September 27, 2008

Transit 101

I would think that a fairly obvious aspect of transportation planning is that as convenience increases, so does use. Unfortunately, this lesson is one that apparently needs to be added to the syllabus. As I said last week, the University of Maryland has been fighting the Purple Line for a while. Other universities are making similar arguments against rail plans in their areas.

The Overhead Wire reported late last week that Norfolk State University in Virginia has been successful in getting the NSU station on Norfolk's light rail system, which is currently under construction, moved away from campus. According to the Hampton Roads Pilot Online, university officials were worried that a stop so close to campus would be a security issue.

Moving the station will add $1.45 million to the cost of the project and will locate the station on the opposite side of Brambleton Avenue. Light rail patrons traveling to the Norfolk State Campus will now have to cross a 5-lane arterial. Of course, this is likely to reduce both the number of criminals and students using the train. The crucial question is which group will be more determined to get across the highway.

While the administration of UMD has decided to partake in a civil discussion regarding the Purple Line, history shows that they haven't always been so accomodating. Not only did they try and get the Purple Line stop moved away from the center of campus, they were instrumental in the 1970s in getting the Green Line station located far from campus, on the far side of College Park. One WMATA proposal put the Green Line stop under Route 1 at its intersection with College Avenue. This stop would have been adjacent to campus, but the University feared that it would increase crime. As a result, students, faculty, staff, and visitors have to endure a long walk or bus ride to campus.

UM's arguments against the Purple Line tended to be more along the lines of objections due to safety rather than crime. Of course, if the University is so concered that light rail vehicles will be a danger to pedestrians, I challenge them to remove all cars from Campus Drive regardless of the fate of the Purple Line, after all, cars are far more dangerous to pedestrians. Rethink College Park further challenged the UM's arguments by asking, among other things, why all the campus buses didn't serve the the University's proposed station location on Stadium Drive. Hopefully, the university's fears won't result in another inconvenient station location.

Another university that fought light rail is the University of Minnesota. They objected to the Central Corridor which would connect Minneapolis and Saint Paul on similar grounds as the University of Maryland. Fearing, vibration, traffic disruption, and pedestrian safety, they insisted on a subway route through campus. When that proved too expensive, they insisted on a lenghty detour around the northern side of campus. That route would have drawn too few riders, however. Finally, not wanting to be the last obstacle to the line, they wisely backed down.

These Universities, although they would benefit greatly from the increased mobility, have fought projects which would reduce their need to provide parking, increase their environmental friendliness, and make their institutions a more integrated part of the urban fabric. At long last, some are beginning to wise up. Still, these objections are likely to continue to crop up as transit officials continue to try to expand transit into new areas. Hopefully, in these debates, mobility will be the victor.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Good to the Last Drop?

Yesterday was carfree day here in DC. I hope some of you out there were able to commute in a carfree manner. Of course, if you weren't able to take the train or bus, everyday is a good day to start so it's not too late to reduce your dependence on oil.

Ironically, enough, across the Southeastern United States, people are being forced into reduced-car diets. Damage to our oil infrastructure by hurricanes Gustav and Ike has created oil shortages across the Southland. CNN showed gas lines in Alabama, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported many stations across the state of Georgia without gas. My parents, who live about 40 miles north of Atlanta, reported that they were paying over $5.00 for gas, and that it was hard to come by. Some gas stations have even limited the amount of gas one can buy.

Gas Buddy reported prices as of
midnight, September 23, 2008

CNN seems to think that the problems are a result of panic coupled with short supplies. The main pipeline serving the Atlanta Area, Colonial, is not operating at full capacity due to the hurricanes that recently did damage in the Gulf. Additionally, gas supplies in the Atlanta area are less flexible due to restrictions on the components. The Environmental Protection Agency requires cleaner burning fuels be sold in Atlanta due to the chronic air pollution problems plaguing the city.

And while the current situation might be due to a run on gasoline in the region, the overall situation is one caused by unsustainable policies. Atlanta is one of the most sprawling regions in the country, and alternatives to driving have long been neglected. Additionally, gas taxes in Georgia are the lowest in the nation, a fact which encourages driving (while robbing the government of funds that could be used for transportation improvements).

I have pointed out before that higher gas prices will benefit Americans in the long run. Until our policies can shift to accomodate a new era in which the role of the automobile is de-emphasized, we will continue to be reliant on a non-renewable, polluting resource which comes mostly from unfriendly parts of the world.

Even publications like Time have pointed out that high gas prices aren't all bad. But a radical shift will not help the country at all. If gas prices rise (artificially or otherwise) gradually over a long period, the market will adjust and the government will have time to take up the slack with alternatives. Additionally, people will be given the opportunity to change their behavior, however, when the price change is abrupt, the economy and individuals can be seriously harmed.
This is why it is even more important that we take steps right now to shift away from oil. I talked about the candidates' positions on energy a few weeks ago, and I'm not terribly impressed with either. In the long run, however, drilling won't change much. It won't even put a dent in the trend, so I'm not worried that it will slow the transition away from oil much. What it does do, however, is focus our political attention away from the issue. It gives people false hope that they won't have to change, and that is a bald-faced lie. We deserve better from our politicians, even if we don't expect it.

I debunked the idea of the summer gas tax holiday a while back, and even though that proposal has dropped of the radar, I don't think the energy debate is any more informed than it used to be. At least not according to the rhetoric being spouted by most of the candidates out there.

But if you're still wedded to the idea of drilling (go buy a typewriter, they're the wave of the future), you should at least check out these numbers.

My home state, Georgia, will survive the firestorm of gas shortages. This time. The question is not if Georgians can make it through this price shock, it's whether they can make the changes necessary to survive the end of the oil era. Will Mr. Perdue commit to making substantive policy changes (such as transit funding and a gas tax geared toward demand reduction) or will he take his traditional tack and pray for divine intervention?

A Debate that (Finally) Makes Sense

The Purple Line is a proposed transitway which will traverse Washington's northern suburbs. Running from Bethesda in the west to New Carrollton in the east, the line will link some of the larger job centers in the Maryland suburbs and could be the stepping off point for a fully circumferential rail line around the city.

The rail line will not be the same type of service as the existing metro, instead it will be either light rail or bus rapid transit. These modes do not have to be fully grade separated from other types of traffic, and in this case, very little of the Purple Line is likely to be elevated or in subway.

The lack of grade separation has been a contentious issue for some time at various points along the proposed route, however some of the loudest discussion came from College Park, where the proposed routing would traverse the University of Maryland on Campus Drive.

The University administration called for alternative alignments, costly subway construction, and further study; while students pushed for a central location and a speedy construction process. To many, it seemed that the debate was getting us nowhere, with the University proposing new alignments seemingly every week and forcing the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to rehash old arguments over and over. The student government organizations at both the undergraduate and graduate levels passed resolutions calling for the Campus Drive alternative, but President Mote would not meet with representatives from those bodies to even discuss the substance of UM's objections.

Finally, however, the debate has settled down into a calm, rational discussion of the issues. The administration, reports the Diamondback, will drop its objections to the MTA-preferred alternative if MTA can allay the fears that trains will be a danger to pedestrians and disrupt research. Accordingly, MTA is studying the potential effects, from vibrations to electromagnetic radiation. They've also released revised plans for pedestrian movement and design which will truly improve the appearance of central campus.

The Purple Line is a golden opportunity for UM and the Washington region. By improving transit access, the University can reduce the footprint of its parking facilities and increase students' access to jobs throughout the region. The region will increase its mobility and will build a vital link missing from the transit infrastructure for so long. If UM's support is indeed forthcoming, this vision of Washington's future will be one step closer to reality.

The Purple Line will probably most
resemble Charlotte's new Lynx LRT

Matt is an occasional contributor to Rethink College Park. A different version of this post will appear there this week.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Digging Down (for Transit) Means Building Up

This post is the sixth 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.

The Washington region has done a decent job of building up where it has dug down for subway construction. And so has Toronto. Because of the height restrictions in DC, it's not always as obvious that we've included density with transit; however the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor and transit nodes in Alexandria, Bethesda, and Silver Spring are easier to see.

Transit Oriented Development in Alexandria

Mid-rises in Silver Spring,
Metro/MARC in foreground

Rosslyn's transit node from across the river

Toronto is especially adept at matching density with transit nodes. They also offer a good vantage point for the geography-savvy to note this good planning. From the top of the CN Tower, one can see for many miles, and its obvious where subway stations are, even from 1464.9 feet above the city.

Can you find the subway stations?
Hint: Look for taller buildings
Looking northwest from the CN Tower

Looking north from the CN Tower,
TOD stretches toward the horizon

Success in transit goes hand in hand with success with urban development. I was in another city which has learned that lesson recently. Charlotte, North Carolina opened its brand new light rail system in November of last year, and has almost reached its 2025 ridership targets in less than 10 months. I think that a large portion of the credit for the high ridership can be given to the planners in Charlotte who, long before the rail line was a sure thing had already implemented transit-supportive, smart growth policies.

The Lynx LRT at Carson

These policies are essential to the success of transit. At the moment, Fairfax County is struggling with those issues in preparation for the Silver Line to Dulles. As I've noted here before, the largest impediment to creating walkable, livable urban centers at Tysons is the auto-oriented nature of the development and transportation systems.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Mr. Miller, Tear Down this Freeway

This post is the fifth 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. Due to my other obligations, this post has been a long time coming. I apologize.

I spent 4 days in Toronto, and I was impressed with the waterfront renaissance. All along lake Ontario, parks and condos seemed to be springing up. The developments seem likely to continue to bring life to the shore of the lake.

The Gardiner crosses York St.

Unfortunately, separating the waterfront area from Downtown is a postwar era urban freeway. The Gardiner is an elevated roadway owned by the City of Toronto which runs parallel to the lakefront. It was built in the 1950s and 1960s, and like expressways across North America built for the age of the automobile it was built mainly with regard to moving cars into the city even at the expense of the urban fabric.

A ramp encircles a park at York St.

And like many cities plagued by waterfront expressways, Toronto is considering tearing it down. On the very day I walked down to the lake and under the Gardiner, the Globe and Mail ran a story on the Mayor Miller's announcement of plans to study the freeway's removal.

A look down upon the area from the CN Tower

If the freeway comes down, it will be a good step to knitting the city back together. It will give Torontonians better access to their lake. The Gardiner could easily join the list of waterfront freeways that have come down over the past couple of years: the Embarcadero, the Central Artery, and Harbor Drive have all come down and San Francisco, Boston, and Portland are all better places for it.

The Whitehurst from the Key Bridge

Closer to home, however, we still have our own example of a waterfront freeway. The Whitehurst runs for several blocks from M Street just west of 35th in Georgetown to K & 27th Streets.

The Whitehurst, as seen from
Wisconsin at the Canal

The elevated structure obscures views of the Potomac from historic Georgetown, but many residents support it, nonetheless. It serves a role in removing through traffic from congested M Street.

Looking west from Water & Wisconsin

The freeway actually runs above Water Street for most of its entire length, with businesses fronting the underbelly of this relic of DC's freeway past. Like most of the freeways in the urban core, it is a remnant of an ambitious (Robert) Moses-like plan to disembowel DC with interstates, a-la-Los Angeles.

The Whitehurst towers over
Georgetown's waterfront park

Hopefully, Washington can soon join Toronto in seeking to remove barriers to its waterfront.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Back to the Ol' Grindstone

Sorry for the light posting lately. Two weeks ago I started a new internship and just last week, I went back to school for the 19th consecutive (and final) year. I've quite a courseload this semester and as a result, posting will probably be less frequent. However, I hope to keep an interesting dialog going here at Track Twenty-Nine. Thanks for sticking with me.

Metro Service Advisory: 9/12-9/14

This weekend, Metro will be performing maintenance and inspection of the Fenwick Bridge. As a result, no rail service will be provided on the Yellow Line bridge across the Potomac River. Yellow Line trains will operate from Huntington to Arlington Cemetery from 10PM Saturday until opening Monday. Passengers traveling downtown or needing to transfer to other Metro lines must transfer to the Blue Line anywhere between King Street and Arlington Cemetery.

Metro advises passengers traveling along the Yellow Line to add 20 minutes to their travel times.

View Metro's press release here.