Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Less High-Speed Rail, More Freight Rail

High-speed rail is the technology of the future, always has been, always be. For the last 40 years, many states have had plans for rail lines they'd like to build sometime in the next 5-10 years. The hype about intercity high-speed rail has picked up again lately with the Disneyland-Las Vegas line Harry Reid would like to see built, and the $8 billion in the stimulus bill for High-Speed rail projects.

While many rail advocates think we should build these lines no matter the cost, high-speed rail is not going to become a major form of transport in this country anytime soon because it is so expensive to build and most cities can't provide the ridership for frequent service. A more realistic attempt to build up rail at the expense of highway traffic would be to focus on freight, and get the trucks off the road. Phillip Longman at Washington Monthly has a good idea on how to do this.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rail Shuttle to PHX - Ridership Above Projections

One of the most noticeable features of Phoenix's 6 week old light rail system is that it does not stop at the airport. The decision to bypass was made because of the cost of tunneling under existing roadways, and the impossibility of grade intersections with these roads. So instead, there's a shuttle bus from the terminal that takes passengers to the rail line.

Ridership was initially projected at 600 for the rail link, but is coming in about 40% higher, representing nearly 1% of all airport passengers. In 2013, a new automated people mover will replace the current shuttle buses.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Governor Granholm, 1995 is on the Phone for You

One of the most embarrassing attempts at economic development over the last five years has been Michigan's Cool Cities initiative. The state woke up to the Internet boom about four years after the industry went bust, and decided in 2003 to focus on attracting creative workers, not just industrial companies.

This strategy, adopted by just about every other state in the mid-90s, meant showcasing lifestyle benefits, and referencing the work of every author who had written some "knowledge worker" hype piece in 1995. Needless to say, Flint hasn't become the next Austin, and VCs have yet to start camping out in Grand Rapids.

Just to make sure this silly economic development strategy fails, jittery Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero (seriously he's like Tweak from South Park) is telling anyone who'll listen that we need to re-write all of our trade agreements and stop letting all those foreign imports into this country. I understand that the mayor, who really should switch to decaf, is trying to protect the autoworkers who voted for him and the unions who funded him. Problem is if you're trying to attract new workers and new industries, chances are really good they're going to have customers overseas, and will need those trade agreements to sell products.

Much like the Internet bubble, it's time to put Cool Cities into the history books. Lansing has every right to protect its current workers from foreign competition. It just needs to stop expecting people who sell to foreigners to move there.

Dallas Looking to Vancouver for Urban Design Ideas

Among major metro areas, Dallas has long had one of the cheapest downtowns for parking and office space, a good indication that not much is happening there. The city itself is very spread out, with a population density of 3,600 per square mile, about the same as suburban Fairfax County, VA just outside Washington. But with DART light rail now carrying over 70,000 passengers a day, and expanding to 90 miles over the next four years, Dallas' light rail system will soon rival DC's metro for route mileage.

While office vacancies and rents both remain in the 20s, downtown population has grown in recent years to a modest 5,000 residents. Now with its transit use growing, the city is looking at other regions with large rail systems to understand how to create a more vibrant urban core. One example is how Dallas has turned to Vancouver to learn more about planning for density.

While most academic urban planners are in love with Vancouver's dense center city, just 5% of its metro population lives downtown. However, its SkyTrain rail system now carries nearly 300,000 passengers a day on just 30 miles of track, and it's just 24 years old. The lesson, therefore, from Vancouver is not just about downtown density, but providing transit choices to the vast majority of people who live outside the urban core.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Phoenix Light Rail - Is it Worth It?

I was in downtown Phoenix last October, right before the Light Rail launched. It experienced one of its first mishaps Tuesday when a train hit a bus, but the incident was blamed on a bus driver. In this article from the Phoenix New Times, you can see how the city is adjusting to rail transit.

No Airport Express for Seattle Light Rail

This July, Seattle will be rolling out its starter light rail line between downtown and Tukwila, which is just north of Sea-Tac airport. The line is scheduled to reach Sea-Tac in December, and the city is eager to have it operating before the 2010 Winter Olympics, which will be held just to the north in Vancouver.

Capitol Hill Seattle Blog reports that the line will not feature an express ride, and travelers will have to just deal with the 11 stops and a 36 minute ride between the airport and the Westlake Center downtown.

While Sound Transit claims the line can't handle express trains, can't really fault them for not accommodating. The ride from O'Hare to the Loop on CTA's Blue Line takes nearly 50 minutes, and expected ridership on the Seattle line is just 40,000, hardly enough to justify express trains that could run with any reasonable frequency.

Urban Planning and Freedom of Choice

Welcome to Technology and the City.

For far too long, urban planning analysis has been stuck in an either/or world, with many critics claiming we need policies that encourage more transit and fewer suburbs, and others claiming we need to build more highways and subdivisions to accommodate office workers. But I believe both are wrong. The cities and suburbs that exist today are not the result of a few major policy decisions, but millions of small economic decisions made by consumers and businesses.

It might be easy to blame mortgage interest deductions for suburban sprawl, or for car companies killing transit lines in the 30s and 40s. But while it's always easy to blame politicians or businesspeople, the real issue is why the economics of driving solo became so attractive at that time relative to riding public streetcars. If anyone thinks Congress is so enlightened as to understand how these microeconomic forces would alter life for decades, then it's time for a reality check.

Today, many microeconomic forces are working in favor of public transit and multi-unit apartments and condos. None of this has anything to do with policy, rather the policy is a function of changes in underlying costs for energy, communications, and transportation that is allowing this to happen. This is providing Americans with greater freedom of choice regarding whether they want to live in a city, a suburb, or something in between.

Technology and the City will look at these choices, and how changes in not just technology, but the economics of delivering technologies, specifically transportation, communication, and energy, have altered cities in the past, and will continue to do in the future. It will also look at specific projects, including highway construction, housing developments, and transit builds. Ultimately, it will aim to provide depth on the many decisions that lead to changes in the built environment, most of which originate with citizens, not politicians.