I’ll start by saying I have strong feelings about Southwest LRT. So do some people on this very blog. You probably do too. However, I won’t be contributing further to the gallons of spilled real and virtual ink or weeks of public testimony. I’d like to talk about how we can set the stage for some other projects that could be really beneficial for transit-dependent and transit-interested communities. Nothing in this post should be interpreted as diminishing the importance of that LRT project, the upcoming decisions that will determine it’s fate/depth of its tunnel, or the correctness of any particular opinion about it. But I have this urge to start some positive conversations about other projects that need some support. Weird, right?
Twin Cities Business via Minnpost, has an excruciatingly detailed look at the history of the TC&W railroad and the problems facing potential relocation of said railroad for the SW LRT project.
The goal is that TC&W head west as it does now out of downtown Minneapolis on BNSF rails, but rather than turning southwest into Kenilworth, it would continue past Highway 100 to join the MN&S, heading south through St. Louis Park to rejoin its current route near Louisiana Avenue and Highway 7.
Problem is, the MN&S, which in 1993 looked to TC&W like a long-term solution for a modest amount of additional spending, is now perceived as unworkable by the railroad. The cost of remaking it to fit TC&W’s operations has ballooned from an optimistic $1 million to $70 million or more, and the railroad and others say it presents engineering challenges that may not be solvable within the budgets of the SWLRT project.
In December, the railroad filed its most emphatic objections yet to the SWLRT reroute. Wegner says the MN&S reroute is “a design we intuitively know is bad.” It has “significant risks of derailment” at both endpoints.
In a nutshell, the MN&S, and the proposed connections to it, are engineered for the small CP freight trains that currently use it, not the 100-car trains TC&W runs. The railroad is wary of the undulating MN&S grades, curvature, and proximity to St. Louis Park High School for their potential to insert costly inefficiencies into its operations.
“We have no issue with Southwest Light Rail,” insists Wegner. “But we need to get to St. Paul with the same cost structure as today.”
St. Louis Park officials, concerned about the impacts of the reroute, concur with TC&W. “A lot of the reroute is unfeasible,” says Mayor Jeff Jacobs. He maintains that as currently drawn, the reroute will require expensive noise and vibration mitigation, and the likely removal of 30 to 40 homes. But he says a realistic plan that also functions for 100-car freights will require more expense than the $70 million or so estimated for it, plus removal of additional buildings. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see [the reroute] get to $100 million or above.”
The cost of the freight rail reroute was never included in the evaluation of alternative alignments for the SW LRT project.
At streets.mn, Andrew Owen has a fascinating look at the work he has done with David Levinson on measuring accessibility in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. I’ll let Andrew define accessibility:
Accessibility measures the ease of reaching valued destinations.
Think about the last trip you made. You were in place A, you wanted to be in place B, and you got there by paying some sort of cost. There are several components at work here.
First, lets look at your reason for wanted to be in place B. That’s the whole reason the trip took place! You didn’t just want to move around for a bit, and then come back to A. (People do that sometimes, but we don’t consider it travel — we call it things like recreation, exercise, or NASCAR.) No, you had a reason for traveling to place B. That reason, from a transportation economics perspective, is the value that place B holds for you.
Now that we’ve established that place B has some value to you, it would be great if you could get there whenever you want, for free. But you can’t. Even if you frugally decide to walk from A to B instead of drive, fly, take the bus, or ride a horse, you cannot escape spending a precious resource: your time. The total amount of resources you spend in getting to B, whether they are time, money, oats (for your horse), or some combination, is thecost you pay to reach place B. To generalize just a little bit more, we can say that when the cost of getting to B is low, then B is easy to reach.
That, in a nutshell, is accessibility. It combines the value that we get from travel with the cost of making the trip. I love accessibility because it neatly encapsulates what I consider to be the fundamental purpose of transportation systems: providing ways for people to get to places they want to reach, at costs they are willing to pay.
Andrew then goes on to discuss the results of a project they completed for MN-DOT on measuring “cumulative opportunities accessibility”, or how many things can be reached within a given cost (time) threshold by car and transit. You should read the whole post to see Andrew’s many interesting conclusions.
After reading it, a few things jumped out at me:
Owning a car gives you an overwhelming advantage in accessing jobs in this metro. In a huge swath of the metro, making up all but the most outlying areas, you can access at least 100,000 jobs in 20 minutes by car. A very large area, incorporating both core cities and most first-ring suburbs, can access over 500,000 jobs and up to 2.2 million. By contrast, transit accessibility to jobs maxes out at 100k – 250k jobs, and this is if you live very near downtown Minneapolis. If you live in parts of North and South Minneapolis and use transit, you have the same access to jobs in 20 minutes as someone with a car living in southern Dakota County (like in a corn field). Or, based on the map shown below, from parts of Minneapolis, you can only reach 10-20% of the number of jobs reachable by car.
Is our transportation/land use system is failing those that can least afford a car? I’d say that judgment wouldn’t be a stretch looking at these maps. It will be interesting to see what MNDOT does with this information.
There will be a temptation to interpret this metric as only about transportation. It’s actually about destination density AND transportation system performance. I posted this idea in the comments and Andrew had a good response:
That’s a great point, and I didn’t talk much about the land use side of things in this post.
I feel like the popular conception often sees land use as more static than transportation; it is the background canvas upon which the dynamic lines of transportation are drawn. Discussion of expensive, exciting transportation systems tends to magnify this effect.
But in reality land use is far more dynamic! Transportation systems change in big fits and starts, but land use is constantly evolving in countless small ways. Even if we completely halted new investments in transportation, we could still make huge changes in accessibility through the policies we choose to guide land use development.
MNDOT mostly builds roads, so I assume they’ll use this report to think about where and how they should build more roads. But if your goal is increasing accessibility, is it cheaper to lay blacktop or increase jobs/housing density? What are the environmental implications of choosing each of those options? Why do we have one half of the equation that’s totally socialized (road & transit building) and one that is totally privatized (with obvious regulation – land use controls/building construction)?
What if instead of a Department of Transportation we had a Department of Accessibility and it’s mission was to improve accessibility while meeting environmental standards, building resilient systems, and being economically viable? I bet it would look at lot different than our current DOTs (hint: it would do a lot more with land use).
Over at streets.mn, I have a post about everyone’s favorite fictional urban transit revolution, the urban gondola (or aerial tram).
The case history on US urban gondolas doesn’t look good cost-wise, but the travel time savings look great. The Portland Aerial Tram, which could also be called an urban gondola (if you consider low-slung Portland urban), cost $57 million, or roughly $90 million per mile, if I calculated the hypotenuse correctly. The Portland Aerial Tram travels at a top speed of 22 mph, which could make an Uptown Transit Station to Hennepin-8th Street trip in 6.5 minutes. That’s about one-third the posted travel time for the #6 bus, and less than half the travel time of the limited-stop #12. 6 minutes is even less than half the travel time identified by Metro Transit for an upgraded arterial BRT on Hennepin.
The Transportationist posts this 1988 LRT plan developed for Hennepin County. Obviously, the SW LRT route has moved and the “south” alignment has become freeway BRT. Also note the dotted line, which I assume means tunnel.
In this plan, Minneapolis, especially the most dense parts, is well served by high-quality transit, with the exception of North. In real life, if Bottineau goes with the LPA, 3/5ths of the regions high-quality, “fixed” guideway transit improvements won’t really serve Minneapolis at all (I’m including freeway BRT in the count of 5 since it’s been “converted” from the planned LRT. I’m also not counting Northstar).
Everybody knows that the LRT alignment that would go through the second most dense area of the Twin Cities metro would have fewer trips than one that goes through a railroad trench and parkland, but few have dared to ask why. Come with me on a exploration of the wild world of transportation modeling.
If you dig deep in the Southwest Transitway DEIS, like a stubborn prospector, you can sometimes find real gold. And by gold, I mean stinky logic. Deep in Appendix H, “Supporting Technical Reports and Memoranda Part 1″ is Table 1 in the Transit Effects Appendix (on page 274, to be exact). Table 1 summarizes the daily LRT boardings by segment. These segment summaries are based on station-by-station ridership numbers found later in the Appendix. Here is the table:
Notice anything strange? That’s right, route 3C-1 is assumed to have zero riders continuing their trip from the Central Corridor LRT. Chapter 6 of the main DEIS document has a section on “Interlining Assumptions” which goes into more detail, but the key sentence seems to be on page 6-6 and the table following:
The LRT 3C-1 (Nicollet Mall) Alternative is not integrated with either the Hiawatha or Central Corridor LRT guideway for daily operations.
In the table that follows, under “Passenger movement/convenience” while other alternatives are labeled “One-seat ride possible”, the Nicollet alignment is branded as a “Stand alone LRT line”. That’s right. When you exit the train at 4th Street and Nicollet Avenue, you step off into an abyss. You’ve just ridden a stand-alone LRT line to THE END OF THE LINE. Don’t even try to transfer.
Of course, there are legitimate operational concerns about tracks not aligning and trains not being able to continue on for use on another line. But to assume that ALL travelers coming from the Central Corridor, when confronted with the idea of a *gasp* transfer literally hundreds of feet away would abandon all hope and just drive a car the whole way (or take a slower bus), seems terribly ridiculous to me. The ridership projections also assume that the 3C-2 line, which does interline, actually has fewer Central Corridor riders than 3A, because you know, those few extra minutes. It’s not like there are any attractive destinations along Nicollet and in Uptown. I’m pretty sure no one from the U of M goes to Uptown for anything. They’re all, “out of my way mister, I’m headed for Eden Prairie!”
If you add back in those 5,300 Central Corridor travelers to 3C-1, you get 29,850 daily boardings, or the highest of the all the alignments.
From the Southwest Transitway Draft EIS (page 5-18) in regard to the Nicollet/11th & 12th street alignments and their consistency with land use plans:
The area along Segment C-1 is already developed as TOD due to high frequency transit service. Implementation of LRT and the accompanying reduction in bus service may reduce TOD development potential which is inconsistent with regional and local plans.
So reduced bus service, even with the addition of LRT, means less development potential. Nobody tell the Met Council. Here is what the Central Corridor EIS has to say about TOD near LRT stations:
Experience across the country has shown, that implementation of fixed guideway transit can catalyze economic development activities at station locations.
According to a report cited by the Native American Community Development Institute, Quick Facts Supporting the Development of an American Indian Cultural and Economic Corridor, property values along the Hiawatha LRT Corridor are increasing 22 percent more than property values overall across the City of Minneapolis. The report went on to say that by 2020 more than 19 million square feet of new commercial space and up to 68,000 new jobs would be attracted to the Hiawatha LRT Corridor.
It seems to me future political leaders could regret this document stating that new rail transit infrastructure reduces development potential. Just saying. So is LRT on Nicollet inconsistent with the Access Minneapolis plan, like the DEIS says? Not according to, you know, the actual plan document.
At Human Transit, Jarrett Walker answers a reader question about whether SDVs (self-driving vehicles) will eventually replace some or all transit. Read the whole post, but here is an excerpt.
So to sum up, the technophile urbanists who believe that self-driving cars will eliminate the need for public transit are making several mistakes:
They are assuming that technology will change the facts of geometry, in this case the facts of urban space.
They are assuming that the costs of having every passenger encased in a metal sphere (in terms of production energy and emissions) are readily absorbable by the planet. (To be fair, the SDV discussed here is one that you don’t own but just grab when you want it, so if it replaced the car there would be far fewer cars. But that’s different from replacing a bus.)
If they think that self-driving cars will replace buses but not rail, then they haven’t informed themselves about the vast diversity of different markets that buses are used to serve. Self-driving cars many logically replace some of these markets but not others.
They believe that public transit is incapable of improving in ways that make it more positively attractive to a wider range of people, despite the fact that it is doing so almost continually.
Again, the whole bus vs rail confusion here arises from the fact that technophile urbanists classify transit services according to how they look and feel, whereas transit experts care more about the functions they perform.
So yes, buses are currently doing some things that other tools could do better, especially in sparser markets. Some agencies, like Vancouver’s, already have the tools to solve that problem. But when a huge mass of people wants to go in the same direction at the same time, you need a rail if you have tracks and an exclusive lane for them, or a bus if you don’t. I don’t care whether it’s rail or bus, but the need for a high-capacity vehicle running high quality service that encourages people to use space efficiently — that’s a fact of geometry!
I think I agree with all Walker’s points, except maybe that he oversimplifies the geometry argument. Couldn’t we have self-driving microbuses taking the place of low volume routes? Walker states this is a legacy problem with unions, which could be solved without robot cars (but of course, hasn’t yet).
Also, his geometry argument ignores carpooling. If I could sign up for robot dial-a-ride service and I could choose a higher price to ride alone or a lower price to ride with other commuters, I imagine many people would choose the carpool option (especially existing transit riders). Theoretically, routing software could calculate who your carmates would be based on your origin and destination, and you would arrive at your destination slightly slower than the ride-alone subscription (hence the lower cost). This imaginary system makes the “geometry” argument less valid.
Of course, such a system is a long ways off. We will still of course need transit for a long time, and as Walker states, transit agencies are making efficiency and attractiveness improvements all the time.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation wants your comments on their new Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan. In general, I found many of the strategies overly ambiguous, at least when compared with the old plan. But they score points for including context-sensitive design and land use-transportation connection references.
Most of my comments deal with the almost total absence of discussion in the document of climate change, transportation system’s contribution to it, or potential solutions. Here are my comments:
Page 9 – The plan inaccurately states that the Next Generation Energy Act calls for a 25% reduction in GHG emissions by 2025. The Act calls for a 30% reduction by 2025. It also calls for an 80 reduction by 2050. The plan should note this last goal, since by 2032 (the time horizon of this plan) we’ll be well on our way there.
These contributions and the adopted state law should also be referenced in Chapter 3, which identifies the policy framework that impacts transportation planning.
Given these impacts and adopted targets, I find chapter 4 almost totally lacking in any reference to MNDOT’s approach to meeting these targets. The words “greenhouse gas emissions” do not even appear in this chapter. Approaches to mitigating emissions from the transportation sector are many, but basically boil down to: 1) reducing VMT, 2) switching to more efficient modes (transit, bicycle) and/or 3) switching fuels (The Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group’s Final Report includes a robust set of transportation-related recommendations). I understand that this is a high-level policy document, but failing to address this issue at this stage is a very significant oversight in my opinion. In addition, this document actually appears to be a step backwards from the previously adopted Statewide Transportation Plan, which specifically references the emissions reduction goals adopted by the State, pledges that MNDOT will advance these goals, and identifies strategies it will pursue in accordance.
I appreciate the plan’s focus on “System Security”. However, all the strategies listed here (page 79) address responses to “emergency events”. I recommend another strategy be added to begin assessing potential risks MNDOT’s systems may face in the next 20 years. The Upper Midwest has seen a 31 percent increase in “intense” rainfalls in the last 50 years. A focus on designing our systems differently, rather than reacting to “emergencies” will likely be much more cost-effective in the long run.
The first strategy on page 72 seems to imply the application of cost-benefit analysis to new projects. While this is a positive step, I think the plan should describe how MNDOT will begin to identify all those “costs” and “benefits” and apply them in a rigorous way.
The section on “Transportation in Context” starting on page 78 is very welcome, especially reference to the importance of the connection between transportation and land use decisions.
While the plan references MNDOT’s performance measures, no measures are identified for the multimodal plan as a whole, or for specific strategies identified within it. The previous version of the system plan included performance measures to track progress and I would suggest that MNDOT continue this approach.