Archives For alternative transit

Public Square WestwoodAt the apex of Interstate 93, Interstate 95 and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, a new project is underway touting its focus on Transit Oriented Development (TOD). The term garners support (and rightly so) from designers and planners for its methodology of building denser communities around existing mass transit corridors as an alternative to sprawl. The site for University Station in Westwood, Massachusetts has all of the key components for a successful TOD project.

However, as the project has developed its direction has become a better example of how design and planning choices can compromise even the best of existing site conditions. Despite the fact that close proximity to transit corridors is the most important component of TOD, it is not enough to guarantee success. Location alone will not ensure a vibrant community geared towards transit. A look at the project pulls out some clear examples how development next to transit can go out of its way to orient itself towards something else. Continue Reading…

los angeles traffic jamsAdvocates of alternative transit are often trying to lobby for new infrastructural systems so that increased access can create opportunities for a new rider base that move away from relying solely on automobiles.In designing a pedestrian-oriented space, success not only comes from making pedestrian access an easier option, but making it the easiest. The same can be true for all modes of transit. Reaching parity with cars in terms of convenience isn’t always enough to alter people’s use patterns. Sometimes this could mean not just opening up new avenues for transportation, but constricting old vehicular ones as well. Continue Reading…

National efforts for efficiency and conservation continue to lead us to analyze aspects of daily life to find opportunities ripe for sustainable progress. Our transportation infrastructure is one of the largest and most energy intensive systems that our country needs to function. As a result, every time a mode of transportation is pitched it comes laden with facts and figures as to how it is responding to our needs for increased efficiency. But across the board, how do all of these various players (hybrids, buses, planes, trains) stack up in the amount of energy it takes to get someone from one place to another?

With a growing pressure from the government, our economy is beginning to weigh the costs and benefits of reviewing our means of transportation and deciding which deserve promotion while others are best left unaided. Only last week President Obama announced his landmark (albeit under-funded) promotion of High Speed Rail with the doling out of $8 billion in loans. As Americans, our transportation choices decide the course of huge amounts of GDP. When one considers automotive sales, public transit funding and commercial aircraft the order of magnitude is already in hundreds of billions of dollars. It is no surprise that industries are all fighting to shift the course of the next two decades towards their respective products.

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Subways: New  York & London

Even before I went to London, I had heard tales about its extensive subway system. Known as “the Tube,” many boasted that the infrastructure was easier to understand, cleaner and safer than New York’s MTA service. In short, I was hearing it labeled as “better.” While the Tube is an impressive system, a closer look at its operation and costs draw into question its existence as a system of “public transit.”

New York:

New York’s underground subway system began in 1904. Over a century later, it is made up of 26 different subway routes on 9 different lines with a total of 468 individual stations. It spans across four of the five boroughs with a total of 229 miles of route track distance and 842 miles of track bed (most of New York’s system are three or four tracks across.) Transporting an average of 5 million passengers every weekday, the system carries over 1.6 billion people annually.


Beginning in 1863, the Tube is made up of 11 different subway lines with a total of 270 individual stations. 250 miles of track spread across the neighborhoods of London. An average weekday hosts 3 million passengers, bringing an annual total to around 1 billion patrons. Like New York, the Tube began as a series of privately funded ventures that were eventually encompassed by municipal oversight and direction.

The train cars, also called “rolling stock”, of the Tube feature cloth-covered seats and colored handrails. Every car I traveled on was clean. The speakers announcing stations were clear. Comfort was a clear goal in the cars’ design and it was achieved. Averaging 8’6” wide, the average train is approximately 437’ long.  New York’s cars are often wider at 10’across with trains as long as 600’ to provide a larger average capacity. Though New York subways can transport more passengers per ride, once inside the digs are not plush, merely smartly infrastructural with plastic seat surfaces easily cleaned. Finding a car where one can actually hear the announcements is hit or miss.

Subway Interiors New York and London

While the street grid of New York provides for fewer crossings of train lines, London’s web of streets forces many tracks be carved deeper beneath the road surface. Most tunnels in the Big Apple are 15-20’ underground, but London’s can go as deep as 65’ (a healthy five story building.) Not only can getting down to the tracks take longer, but air movement at such depths becomes more difficult. In the London heat wave of 2006, the temperature in Tube tunnels reached 117 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Alternative Transit DiagramThe stimulus package has helped to renew consideration for updating our national rail system to include high speed trains, devoting $8 billion to funding new projects across the country. The desire for breaking into new territory is clearly there. Forty states have reportedly submitted $103 billion in requests for high speed rail funding (that is over 12 times the available pot.) However, unless we are complimenting these faster means of travel with smaller, more localized improvements to the network of alternative transit these dollars may be paying for a system with limited levels of efficiency.

These sleek trains that can travel in excess of 200 miles per hour are one of the more enticing visions of efficiency in bolstering alternative transportation in the country and limiting car and plane travel. Glances to European and Asian models give tantalizing possibilities of quicker commutes like traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours. Conventional wisdom pegs trains as far more fuel efficient than the energy required to fly a plane and within a radius of 600 miles, the train can actually be more convenient and faster when you factor in the arduous process of air travel (baggage, security, boarding, taxiing, deplaning.)

I am a complete supporter of high speed trains, but too many people are beginning to see them as the silver “bullet” for our travel woes and if they are not running between cities that have continued to build a network of alternative transit, their usefulness will be capped and keep us from the success that other countries have found.

Alternative transportation is an ecosystem of its own, encompassing every scale of travel from door to door. High speed rail is at the largest scale, great for covering large distances with as few stops as possible and performing well on a scale of transportation efficiency, but no matter what they are only part of the journey. Getting to and from the station in a sensible way is part of what makes the concept viable and attractive. Smaller, more localized systems must be installed to facilitate local access to high speed travel. Spending the money to connect cities without this infrastructure is jumping the gun.

Regional or commuter train lines offer the first level of integration of alternative transit, giving more people easy and cost-effective access to prime transport nodes of major cities. Unlike their high-speed brethren, these trains can make more local stops while still easily trumping the time and energy required of car travel. From there, local lines can take the form of subways, light rail or street cars that give easy maneuverability in urban settings and exponentially increase the amount of accessible destinations. Still further are bus and bike infrastructure that provide an efficient way for short, local trips while remaining efficient in both energy and space.

A true system that utilizes all of these components would drastically decrease the need, and convenience, of traveling by car—which is part of the idea. The more convenience that the system can sell, the more passengers will change their travel habits, allowing the cost of the service to drop, perpetuating the cycle.

Not transit programmed?

Our problem in America is that our cities (and perhaps more importantly, our suburbs) are not designed to accept these systems. The last half-century has been spent crafting our environment around car travel, making it no surprise that many people feel reluctant to consider alternatives. Most of our cities do not have these integrated systems, or even pieces of them, and remain slaves to roads, highways and viaducts. This is why some experts assert that, as of now, the Northeast is the only truly viable site for high speed rail where cities that have matured transit infrastructure can benefit. Having a high speed train stop in Los Angeles makes far less sense than one stopping in New York City.

Although I am a proponent for getting people to change, at a certain point the request becomes unreasonable if the extra effort is less convenient with no time saving and a higher cost. Critics of new rail systems point to existing infrastructure like Amtrak and its failed attempt to remain a profitable source of travel. The costs in construction and maintenance of railroads are extremely high and in a recession no one wants to sign onto a plan that will create black holes of tax dollars.

Their complaints are not entirely unfounded. Amtrak has yet to succeed in convincing enough people ride to keep the prices noticeably low, but what can we expect? As a country we have not succeeded in building our communities around alternative transport—we have not really tried. But if we are going to try then it has to be a holistic effort. That being said, the situation is improving. Amtrak has seen increasing record ridership for the past 6 years and running. The progress can be compliment by our cities, towns and suburbs being re-conceived with less deference given to automobiles. Picking the regions to receive funding for high speed projects could hinge on whether local municipalities can do parallel efforts to promote transit-oriented development on a local scale to increase the health of the entire network.

I am reminded of conservationist Willie Smits and his rebuilding of rain forests. As he explains, there is more to the forest than just the trees—an entire system at different heights, sizes and light levels that is mutually and intricately co-dependent. True rehabilitation efforts must address them all and alternative transit is no different.