Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dallas and the Two Things about Transit

I want to expand on the previous post about how to do transit, particularly that only two things need to be done to make it successful, using a case study. Previously, I said transit needs to get people from where they are to where they are going, and they need to do it efficiently.

The reason I want to go back to that point is to compare DART, which is a typical American transit agency. There is a lot that is at fault with DART's rail system, much of which is beyond their control. DART rail fails on the first part, getting folks places, primarily because it was built within old railroad right-of-way. The land-use downtown is much more conducive for rail transit, since the built environment is more convenient to rail than the outlying areas. Much of the old ROW is surrounded by factories, warehouses and other industrial uses. Industrial areas are far less likely to support transit use than just about any other land use. On top of that, what is already there has its back to the rail lines and stations.

When the rail line runs though old industrial areas, two things happen. First, the stations become park-n-ride lots for the stations in the center of the system. Second, the area has to redevelop to encourage all day usage. If that doesn't happen, the line is underutilized during non-peak hours and it is not cost-effective. It also is likely to have a reduced frequency. Large headways are not efficient for passengers, further reducing the lines patronage. This is the exact situation of the Blue Line north of Mockingbird Station. Everything but Downtown Garland (though even this one is a large commuter station) is only a commuter or transfer station, though plans are in place to make Lake Highlands Stations a mixed-use station, and it runs through one-story brick industrial areas north of LBJ and the southern part runs through woodlands and views of single-family house's backyards.

As DART has set it up, the rail system is heavily dependent upon transfers. Most are buses, but even park-n-ride lots count, since folks are transferring from their cars to the rail system. Transfers kill ridership. Unless the destination is downtown Dallas, there are likely at least two transfers. Passengers board a bus, transfer to a rail line, and then transfer to another bus. The idea should be to try to get transfers down to roughly one on average. As more transit-oriented developments come on-line, this will become more likely, but the vast, vast majority of the region will still not be convenient to the rail system.

The funny thing is that a lot of it is outside of DART's control. To keep the systems construction cost lower, and therefore available for federal funds, the freight ROW was the best choice. But from a ridership perspective, consider a subway line down McKinney Avenue to serve Uptown, rather than the subway currently under Central Expressway. Other than Cityplace Tower, and perhaps the shopping center with the Target, Cityplace Station isn't surrounded by conducive land uses. However, what could have been if there was a subway station between Pearl and Fairmount (remember that an urban subway station has entrances at both ends of the station)? This would cover most of the lower portion of Uptown. Another station between Hall and Lemon, covering the upper part of Uptown that Cityplace does so poorly. Another station somewhere between Fitzhugh and Knox would serve the emerging area of Knox-Henderson. To be fair, the Knox-Henderson neighborhood fought a station from being build on the current alignment. Ironically, that area is one of the vast minority of neighborhoods that would be effectively served from a freeway alignment.

In conjunction with the feds cost requirements, the suburban faction also keeps the status quo as we know it. They oppose urban subways, since they fear that increased cost will result in a delay or perhaps no rail line to their areas. That isn't necessarily a bad thing for DART, since studies have statistically shown that suburban locales have lower riders per capita and in real numbers than their urban counterparts. There are a variety of reasons, such as land use favoring autos, lower densities and car-oriented customs. But the funding of the system requires suburban participation.

Is it DART's fault that their rail system is underutilized? I would answer that as partially. The feds funding formula's favor funding construction over operating costs. The state offers very little funding as is, and what is made available is primarily for construction. The regional interests favor the more expansive commuter system, though commuter systems always have lower riders than truly urban ones.

While much fanfare has been made of the TOD's that will remake the area, some developers aren't helping either. DART wanted to run the first phase of the Green Line down Houston Street, rather than the current freight alignment by I-35E. Not only would that have served Victory better, but that part of Uptown would have been much better off. Add that in combination with the McKinney subway proposed above, Uptown, one of the most dense office and residential neighborhoods in Dallas would have been well served by rail, rather than virtually non-existent as it is now.
But even given the hand DART was dealt, only minor changes may have had much bigger ridership impact. There was a former Executive Director at DART, Ted Tedesco, who proposed moving portions of the Green Line near Parkland Hospital and the Red Line in Oak Cliff to street-median running alignments that would have run through the neighborhoods they served (similar to the south Blue Line), but the DART board voted against that proposal, due primarily to suburban and cost interests.

The Orange Line is likely to be a higher utilized suburban rail line, since it is being built in the median of Lake Carolyn Parkway in the Las Colinas Urban Center. However, since the built environment is more suited to a suburban office park, with things like setbacks, poor pedestrian design and high parking ratios, than an urban rail system, the line willl be similar to others in DART's system, promising yet underwhelming. It also requires yet another transfer to the Las Colinas APT, further supressing ridership.

Houston, despite their fumbles, is building excellent urban rail system. At build-out, they are going to have a similar amount of riders on one-third of the track mileage. They did that despite being a typical Sun Belt city like Dallas. Perhaps the main difference is that Houston is by far the majority of Metro, where as Dallas is about half the membership of DART, by population.

In essence, Houston did a much better job in the design phase of figuring out where people are, where they are going to go and how to get them there efficiently. DART did what was easy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Transit and downtown, how should it be?

The transit planning world is a buzz about Tallahassee's revamp of their transit system (one account gushes over the changes, another fawns). Primarily, transit systems are downtown focused, for lots of reasons. Yet, American cities are sprawling outwards, rather than upwards in a central core. Meanwhile, cities across the country have tried to implement more crosstown routes to reflect that change. The results have been mixed, but largely disappointing.

Some stats about the change: Prior to the change, there were 26 routes, all terminating in downtown. Now there are 12, though much longer. Every route was altered in some form. Operating costs did not rise. Of the 12 routes, only six stop at the downtown transfer area.

I am going to rip the maps from the Atlantic article and put here showing the before and after.

Old - notice the radial lines into downtown.

The reason given is fairly simple. The links above state how Tallahassee's downtown contains only 14% of the jobs, yet every bus route was routed there. A cursory glance indicates a very sound idea, nothing really unique to Tallahassee even. So why have the mixed results been so prevalent?

The biggest reason is land use. DFW Airport is one of the largest employers in DFW, yet has a very low transit usage rate, especially when compared to downtown. You can't be dropped off at the doorstep or even a few hundred feet away in most areas of the airport. That means lowered ridership. If the same amount of jobs that exist within downtown Dallas now (130-140,000) existed in a much more sprawled landscape, like a freeway frontage or an airport, the current transit use rate would fall. Similarly, as discussed before, if the density is too low, riders can't be generated at a number high enough to make the service close to balancing a cost/benefit ratio. I could plan a system that ran down every street, but that doesn't mean it will be ridden or meet even the loosest, most vague definition of efficiency.

It also completely ignores frequency. Tallahassee would have increased ridership by simply upping the frequency and reducing headways. People ride transit more when they know they won't have to wait long. In the higher ridden systems, some riders don't even have to consult a schedule, since the vehicles run so close together.

It also ignores demographics. Particularly in American cities built for the car, the more affluent you are, the less likely a bus is to be ridden.

Lastly, my personal beef, it treats transit as a way to get to work. In my opinion, if you treat transit as a transportation option, rather than a commuter option, then things change. In New York, people do ride the subways to get to work, but more often, people ride the subways to get somewhere, and sometimes it is work.

Now I don't want to say that planners didn't take these into account, because I am sure they did, but the reporting by people who love to see crosstown routes always ignore these factors. DART put a great emphasis on crosstown routes when it was formed in the early '80's. The average ridership was about a quarter of projections. They had to be scaled back. The main reason was land use was not conducive for bus service, particularly in the 'burbs.

That said, I am not opposed to crosstown routes. However, it should also be noted that bus that run through downtown can still be a crosstown route. Let me illustrate. If you draw an X representing two bus routes, with the intersection being downtown, you can go from the top left to the bottom right by going through downtown, but not stopping, which is commonly done. Now that can bring up other issues, such as extended trip times, since downtown trips usually take longer to traverse.

I have always said that transit needs to do two things effectively, get people from where they are to where they want to go and get there efficiently. The first point is obvious. If I want to go to Arlington, Frisco or Mesquite, I won't take transit because I can't get there. Conversely, if those residents wanted to get to downtown from there, they couldn't. Note, it doesn't say anything about the workplace.

The second point is a bit harder to understand. It can mean time, but not the fastest. Buses are perceived as slow because they stop a lot, since people have to get on and off and that can also mean they miss the timing and get stuck at lights. Trains can sometimes go slower, but it doesn't feel slower, since it is built into the schedule. Bus rapid transit could go a ways to increasing ridership.

But it also means other things. Reducing headway's is efficient as is costs. My biggest one is transfer. It is inefficient to have to make multiple transfers. Each transfer increases the trip time and possibly increases the risk of missing a transfer. DART's system is rough because it is a rail system that requires bus feeders or park and rides to be successful. The only true place where people consistently get off the train to their destination is downtown. But if downtown is not the destination, then it is usually at least two transfers.

I hope Tallahassee's changes work, but I will wait to see results, rather than proclaim the greatness before it is running.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How the built environment and gas prices affect the economy

Has it really been a month since the last post? Wow, shame on me. Sadly, there isn't a lot going on. I have touched on Elm Place getting a chance, the Atmos Complex and the Continental getting started on a residential conversion and I touched briefly on the Statler. The only current project I have neglected is the conversion of an old federal courthouse and post office into residential units, but that has flown under the radar a bit.

My normal M.O. is to find a bit of news and discuss it, putting a bit of my personal beliefs in the post. Rarely do I just throw out my beliefs in an editorial fashion. This will be an exception.

A lot is being made upon the economy and the the need for jobs. However, what I am seeing is decades of a declining manufacturing base and a shift to the service sector (which is primarily things like retail, restaurant along with the finance, insurance and real estate sectors). The problem with that, as I see it, is that type of system requires two things. It needs goods to be brought in or imported, since they aren't being made here and it requires money to be already present in the system. The collapse of the economy was due in part to trading of bad securities, or people trying to make money off of existing money.

In my opinion, that works well in good times. In bad times, it does not. However, people will always need goods. I am typing this on an existing good, a laptop. I am sitting on a sofa, probably made overseas. My son is squeaking a toy, not made in the USA. These are material goods, made and sold overseas. Opportunities to make money like that are lower in the US than in China, who has barely noticed the global recession, because they make the world's goods.

To some extent, this was unavoidable. Yes, China can pay their workers $1.50 a day, saving the company money. So that means they are passing the savings on to us consumers right? No. Even in these trying times, corporations are profiting more than before the recession. In fact, they are profiting more than any other time in the last two decades. More and more, the middle class is getting squeezed. Prices are rising and wages are not. One reason is that decent paying manufacturing jobs are being sent overseas and being replaced with low wage service jobs.

As odd as the connection may sound, that is one reason why I am a fan of high gas prices. If it costs more to ship the goods made overseas here than the wages that were eliminated, than many of the jobs will come back if nothing more than to keep costs as low as possible.

But that leads to a catch-22. If gas prices are high, doesn't that also create a squeeze on the average American, since they have to pay more for transportation? Ah, but what if more Americans were able to live in a walkable, transit-provided area? Then the shock wouldn't be as great.

Consider these next two maps, which come from this website that calculates cost of housing per income and cost of housing and transportation per income. It consistently shows that even in places where housing costs are high, places that are more urban are not as costly per capita as places that are automobile-oriented.

Here is Dallas. Note that in the suburbs, housing costs per income are greater than in the urban areas near downtown Dallas.

Now notice how much more blue the area becomes when transportation costs are added.

Doesn't it stand to reason that if more places were walkable, people would drive less, thus lowering the cost of transportation and adding more money to people's pocketbooks? So if gas prices were to continue to rise, but more people were able to blunt that impact by having the option not to drive, and jobs returned back to this country, then isn't that a win-win for everyone?

While this may be a little simplistic, so is general economics. There are certainly a lot of other things that could help, such as moving a lot of freight, especially long distance, to more efficient rail lines and let freight concentrate on local distribution, but it does get the point across. If gas prices stay high, and there is no sign that they won't, but more people consume less gas, than the economy can get back on track.