Tag Archives: light rail

Give the neighbors a say–but how much?

In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, they’re looking at expanding the light rail they have by providing what would seem to an outside observer (me) a link between the two cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Obviously, the two cities have grown up without the rail infrastructure, so lots of homes and businesses will be affected, and a group of the affected folks evidently sued to stop the project, saying planners didn’t pay them enough heed.

The judge seems to be saying, “You could have paid them more heed, but your sin wasn’t egregious enough to make me want to stop the project.”  To me, this raises a couple of important considerations for transit planners and advocates, AND people who do the same day job as me–public participation/community engagement.

In theory, it would be great if the people who would be using a new transit system or line had a substantial say in where it went, and maybe even how it got built.  In practice, it would be hard to please anyone.  I would love, though, to see us try.  I would love to see us create tools–both online and in-person–for people to use to plot out transit lines and understand the costs, both financial and otherwise, associated with their preferences.  If someone wanted a stop near their home or business, but was concerned about how long construction would disrupt things, theoretically, they could toggle the amount of time spent on construction, speeding things up–which would cost more overall (labor overtime, etc.) but might seem less costly to those most immediately affected.

The mantra that “transit must pay for itself” (repeated recently by a an anti-transit-sounding member of Congress) means that the people for whom it is being built have to use it and pay for it.  So, as a practical matter, those people should have a significant say in how it will run and work.  While I am not suggesting that transit planners can ever prevent disruption during the construction phase and should not, therefore, stop a project because it will cause some disruption, I think we would be wise to think of ways to involve the public so that they both approve the concept AND its execution, and they understand the choices associated with a particular route or construction schedule.


More Dallas..and change is in Austin’s air

Capital Metro is going to interview two external candidates to be CEO.  It seemed inevitable that the leadership would need to change–given all the negative publicity surrounding the agency and its launch of commuter rail.

I’ll be curious to see how the public responds to these two candidates.  Orlando, where one of the candidates comes from, has significant challenges related to transit planning–Orlando’s land use is planned in such a way to make transit very difficult.  Each time we’ve gone there, I’ve looked ahead of time at the possibility of getting around via transit, and each time, it’s seemed impractical even for me–90 or more minutes on buses, plus long walks, for a 15 minute drive.  That said, Austin is no picnic when it comes to linking our existing land use patterns to sensible transit, so the Orlando candidate could bring some valuable experience.

The candidate with more rail experience would obviously bring a lot of value to a city desperately in need of additional rail linking key nodes of density and going closer to where people currently are.  That said, I’d be curious how she (and the Orlando candidate) would deal with Austin’s transportation politics–apart from the need for expertise in the subject area, there’s a need for rock-solid communication and public leadership and diplomacy skills.  We shall see.

Meanwhile, Dallas continues pushing forward, and it’s making me red with envy.  Granted, streetcars are not the world’s most efficient transportation mode–as folks in San Francisco will tell you, people seem to ride more for the experience than for getting quickly from A to B.  But I think it engenders lots of enthusiasm for transit as a whole, which feeds into the health of the broader system, which is important.  So, kudos (gulp) to Dallas.


Dallas charges ahead

This update on progress for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) plan to expand light rail certainly makes this Austinite green with envy, to a certain extent; after all, we have no rail here except for the two Amtrak trains a day and all the freight cars.  So, it’s frustrating for a sprawling megaplex like Dallas to have light rail expansion discussions while we’re struggling, as a relatively compact city, to open a single line.

Nevertheless, I think it’s laudable that Dallas is moving as quickly as they are with light rail, particularly to connect DFW to downtown Dallas–given the distance between them and the significance of DFW to travelers around the world.  What’s also interesting to me is the debate over alignment–how the City Council adamantly wants the line to go to the convention center hotel, even if it means spending over $250 million more than other alignments would cost (not including the political capital other lines might require).

Obviously, it makes good planning sense to have transit, particularly rail transit, connect key points of assembly, but I think it’s important that such considerations not lead to dramatic increases in cost.  I haven’t seen the exact map of the alignments under consideration in Dallas, but I would submit that transit riders can absorb a slight walk (a handful of blocks) to key destinations.  Before Dallas spends hundreds of millions of dollars extra (particularly stimulus dollars) to ensure the line goes right up to the convention center hotel’s front door, it should consider the possibility of asking its riders to walk a few blocks rather than cough up a lot more in tax dollars.

Level playing field

This story in the Houston Chronicle is framed around light rail in Houston, but I think it warrants broader attention.  Essentially, it seems as if the federal government will think about how transit can support more sustainable land use patterns than sprawling suburbs.  By thinking more broadly about how transit can reinforce walkable neighborhoods and not just connect suburbs, the Obama administration stands to make a greater impact on congestion.


I don’t really enjoy sending compliments Houston’s way, even though I love my family and most close relatives live there, but I do think Houston deserves props for moving full speed ahead on light rail.  Land is Houston is used so haphazardly that it remains to be seen whether transit can ever make a meaningful dent on single-rider car use, but I really applaud Houston for going after it and setting an example for many other cities to consider.

Put your buses where your trains are

Just heard a great segment during a public radio show based in Seattle called “Weekday” discussing differences in transit between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.  Most interesting to me were the guest’s points about how easy it is to take a train into Portland (from out of town) and then hop on streetcar, light rail, bus, bike, sidewalk, etc., all right there with clear signage.  This photo from lightrailnow.org (taken by Peter Ehrlich) helps illustrate the beauty of bringing services together.

Portland's streetcar and light rail intersect and make it easy to get from one mode to another

Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Transit?

With apologies to Abdul Salaam El Razzac, who said a version of my title in the movie “Pretty Woman”, I thought this article was a pretty interesting and, at times, depressing and scary look at transit in Los Angeles.  Check out these passages; the premise is that the guy will get around in LA for a week using only transit and see how it goes.  This is obviously potent material for the argument about how transit succeeds or fails, in large measure, based on how land gets used. 

My grand scheme hit its first speed bump after the first hour. I’d taken the bus from West Hollywood, where I was staying, to a bus stop near the Getty Villa, but as I approached the steep driveway leading up to the museum, two stern-looking security guards stopped me. Walking up the driveway would have taken no more than five minutes, but the guards said I had to wait while they radioed for a shuttle. The result was that in this wealthy, beachfront community of movie stars, I arrived unceremoniously at the Getty in the back seat of a four-door pickup truck.

On a couple of my days, I spent more than four hours sitting on buses and trains, feeling I was doing a lot more newspaper reading than sightseeing.

I did meet one Angeleno who prefers public transit to a car—a movie producer who lives in West Hollywood next door to my friend’s house, where I was staying, and he agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a preconceived idea that if you take the bus, you’re a failure,” he said. He ticked off things he likes about the bus. “I can read, I can get up to date on my iPhone, I can watch videos on my iPod. There’s a lot that can be done with someone else driving.” He warned me repeatedly not to reveal his name. “In the entertainment business, if they knew I took the bus they’d never talk to me,” he said, explaining that he hires a car and driver when going to a studio.

One of L.A.’s best-known public-transportation enthusiasts is Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 presidential candidate, who now teaches public policy three months a year at the University of California, Los Angeles. “When I tell people in L.A. that I take the bus to the airport, they have no idea what I’m talking about,” Mr. Dukakis said in a telephone interview. “Freeways were a choice we made nationally,” he added. “But people are starting to ask, ‘What are we doing?’It’s clear public opinion is changing, but once you have these urban development patterns based on highways, it’s pretty tough.”

Michael Brein, a Honolulu psychologist and writer, has written 14 guides on how to tour U.S. and European cities by public transit; his latest is about Los Angeles, where he visited more than 200 attractions (the guide is available by download at michaelbrein.com). “I did the whole shebang by public transit,” he brags. His advice: “Visit L.A. a section at a time,” spending the whole day in one area before moving to the next.

My five-day L.A. adventure ended up costing less than $30 in public-transportation fares. My final stop was in Pasadena to see the Huntington Library and Gardens, a vast estate with a European painting collection housed in an old mansion and acres of botanical gardens. By this point, I expected to be used to taking public transit. But I hadn’t dreamed of an itinerary like this: a bus to Hollywood to catch the subway, the subway to Union Station, the Yellow Line light rail line to Pasadena, a local Pasadena bus and then a mile-long walk to the Huntington. When I was ready to leave, the sun was baking hot, and the driver of a lone taxicab at the entrance offered to take me to the Gold Line station for the outrageous sum of $10. I hopped in without a second thought.