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Your Questions For Neil, “Round 5”, Part 1 – High-Capacity Projects

Last Wednesday, Chris sat down with TriMet’s Neil McFarlane for a discussion focused on your questions. This has become a sort of annual tradition for Portland Transport, and this year we were very pleased to be hosted by the Portland Opera – the Opera headquarters is located on the east bank of the Willamette just inches (48 to be specific) from the new transit/bike/ped bridge currently under construction.

The interview session is divided into four videos. We’ll be posting one a day this week – here’s Part 1:

Part 1 is mainly about high-capacity projects, now and in the future. Here’s some of the questions addressed:

  • Will the new bridge be open for bikes and peds before transit operations begin?
  • How will the “Orange Line” be operated? Will it interline with the Yellow Line?
  • What is the fate of high capacity to Clark County now that the CRC is officially dead?
  • How does the vote in Tigard affect SW Corridor planning? What’s TriMet’s view on what the ballot measure means?
  • Is a transit tunnel serving OHSU still on the table
  • Is the Powell/Division corridor being positioned to leapfrog the SW Corridor project?
  • Does TriMet have a strong modal preference (BRT, LRT) for the Powell/Division project?

Segment Navigation:

Check out Neil’s responses in the video and give us your take in the comments.

I’m a Proud CTU

Via @LitmanVPI:

That would be a Cycle-Transit User, someone who combines cycling and transit to accomplish a trip. A new study out of the Mineta Transportation Institute (PDF) looks at this behavior in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

A few top line conclusions:

  • Cycling and transit act as access for each other, it’s not a one-way relationship
  • Cycling extends transit catchment distances to several miles, although not always in obvious ways. Travelers may use cycling to avoid a transfer, reach an interim destination not on transit, or other creative ways.
  • While the largest use case is taking a bike onto the transit vehicle, there are lots of use cases that depend on locking up the bike, and agencies can facilitate this combined mode by offering plentiful secure bike parking at key transit locations.

That last point is one we emphasized in the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030 (I chaired the committee that worked on the bicycle/transit integration chapter).

Initial Thoughts on the ITDP Study

The transportation corner of the internet has been abuzz for the last week over the new study from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

The report compares the amount of development catalyzed by a variety of transit projects, including Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit and Streetcar – and looks at the ratio between capital investment in the transit system and the amount of development. It reaches the somewhat surprising conclusion that the best return on investment was from the Cleveland HealthLine BRT system.

HealthLine is compared against Portland’s own Blue Line MAX. While the Blue Line has a higher total development amount, the capital investment in transit is also much higher.

Portland Streetcar fares well with the third-highest return on investment.

The report suggests several conclusions about what makes for successful development along a transit line:

  • Run the line through a strong or emerging real estate market area
  • Make sure the line runs through the downtown district
  • Ensure that there are complementary government policies and programs that support development (zoning, comprehensive planning, investment tools, etc.)

These all make sense to me.

The startling conclusion the report reaches however is that the type and quality of transit matter very little:

“Our analysis found no correlation between the type of transit investment and the level of TOD investment. LRTs, BRTs, and streetcars all led to similar TOD investment outcomes under similar conditions.”

“The quality of the transit system investment matters, but only marginally. The very strong TOD impacts in both the silver-standard Cleveland HealthLine BRT and the silver-standard Blue Line LRT (Emerging land markets with Strong government TOD support) outperformed the TOD impacts of the below-basic BRT systems in Strong land markets with Strong government support (Kansas City Main Street MAX, Seattle SLU Streetcar, Portland Streetcar). This is the only clear indication that a higher-quality transit investment helped leverage more TOD impacts.”

The report has a methodology for evaluating the transit in term of “BRT Standard” equivalents, based on an elaborate scoring system, where Curatiba is Gold. The Cleveland HealthLine and our Blue Line are both rated Silver (there are no Gold systems in North America) while Eugene’s EmX is rated Bronze. Portland Streetcar is considered “below basic” (I’m hurt).

If you’re wondering about the choice of “BRT Standard” units as the scoring mechanism, keep in mind that WikiPedia indicates that ITDP “focuses primarily on developing bus rapid transit (BRT) systems.”

The reactions from different quarters have been interesting to watch:

So what do I think?

Fundamentally I agree with the idea that a combination of factors need to come together to stimulate development. But I can’t accept that the nature of transit doesn’t have significant impact.

Unfortunately, the report’s methodology (at least as reported) is not rigorous. An academic analysis of the same issues would include things like correlation coefficients, etc. We don’t have anything like that kind of quantitative analysis  here. And I suspect others are going to fact check a lot of details in the report.

I think the report suffers from the same “transit is about long trips” bias that imbues much of the criticism of Streetcar. Many of the reasons Streetcar scored “below basic” are related to not making an effort to support long, fast trips (but at the same time, Streetcar scores very favorably when compared on a riders/mile metric). For those of us working to create sustainable urban environments that rely more on short trips, Streetcar is a smashing success. I do agree with the report’s suggestion that Streetcar couldn’t work if there were not complimentary transit available for trips to other areas.

Fundamentally, the “type/qualify of transit doesn’t matter much” conclusion can’t be correct. My own hypothesis would be that what DOES matter about transit is the commitment of infrastructure in fixed locations that developers know won’t move anytime soon (permanence). Rails definitely serve that function, but it may well be that investment in BRT stations (the report describes “iconic” stations on the Cleveland HealthLine) and dedicated right-of-way is effective as well. Certainly here in Portland a number of folks have posed the question of whether catenary wires for electric trolley buses would have a similar effect. I hope at some point we see a rigorous study that illuminates this debate.

 

Southwest Corridor Questionnaire

This past Thursday, May 23rd, a community planning forum was held to present and discuss the current status of the SW Corridor, and solicit more community input. For those who didn’t attend, the materials have been posted on the project’s home page, and there is an online questionnaire for those who wish to add their two cents on the project.

Of some interest was this set of slides showing trade-offs of different routings, and this slide, giving preliminary cost and ridership estimates for different variations of the corridor. The relevant details are repeated after the jump:
The numbers

Capital costs:

  • OHSU tunnel: $3.1B
  • LRT to Tigard: $1.7B
  • LRT to Tigard and Tualatin: $2.6B
  • “Best performing BRT”: 50%-80% of LRT ($850M-$1.36B to Tigard, $1.3-$2.1B to Tualatin)
  • “Mid performing BRT”: 40%-50% of LRT ($680M-$850M to Tigard, $1.0B-1.3B to Tualatin)
  • “Lower-performing BRT”: < 40% of LRT

Ridership:

  • LRT to Tigard: 22.5k
  • BRT to Tigard: 20.1k
  • BRT to Tualatin: 26.9k
  • BRT to Sherwood (via Tigard and Tualatin): 28.9k

Operating cost/year:

  • LRT to Tigard: $4.9M
  • BRT to Tigard: $6.3M
  • BRT to Tualatin: $7.5M
  • BRT to Sherwood: $10.1M

A few caveats on the numbers:

  • It is unclear whether the $3.1B for a tunnel is instead of a surface route, or in addition to it.
  • Ridership and operating cost for other scenarios not listed, has not been modelled.
  • I believe that ridership and op cost figures are the costs and ridership of the new service, and don’t take into affect changes to other services. (In other words, the ridership figures don’t appear to be all new riders, and some operational savings may be had from reducing redundant local service).
  • Route to Sherwood is via Tualatin; a King City routing appears to be out of the picture at this point.
  • A line to Tigard would terminate at Tigard TC; it is unclear where a Tualatin extension would end (the two logical places would be at Tualatin Station and at Meridian Park Hospital).

Thoughts

The immediate thought is that the capital costs, particularly for light rail or high-end BRT, are high. The distance between PSU and Tigard TC, with deviations to the Tigard Triangle and PCC-Sylvania, is about 10 miles, so the cost-per-mile for a surface LRT solution is actually a bit lower than PMLR. The West Hills cannot be an easy place to put a transit line–on the other hand, there’s no major bridge needed for this project (an extension to Tualatin may need a new crossing of the Tualatin River, but that’s far less of a big deal than a crossing of the Willamette. The distance of a route to Tualatin is nearly 15 miles. Assuming a higher-end BRT can be done for 2/3 the price, one could reach Tualatin for the same budget as LRT to Tigard, and still provide a high quality transit service.

Of course, these are all preliminary numbers; not a budget of the scope and accuracy that one would find in a DEIS or other advanced planning document. Unfortunately, preliminary numbers tend to be on the low side…

BRT would provide a few other opportunities–it supports branching service much better, and it’s easier to phase: Assuming the vehicles used aren’t too exotic, busses on a BRT going to Tigard can continue on surface streets to Tualatin if there isn’t enough funding to go all the way to Tualatin in one go–and likewise to Sherwood. By the same token, it may be possible for the 76 to use a new busway or bus lane between Tigard and Tualatin. (And while this isn’t in the works for the SW Corridor, a BRT between Beaverton, Washington Square, and Tigard is a tempting idea…)

The big question is–where and when will money come from to build anything on the scale of what is discussed above? And the second question–which I’ve asked several times before, but not really seen a satisfactory answer to–why have capital costs for this sort of thing skyrocketed, particularly in comparison to earlier MAX lines?

The floor is open.

How Do We Get an Antifragile Transit System?

It would appear that the failure of a single surge protector effectively disrupted most MAX trips during the morning rush hour yesterday.

That would seem to be the definition of “fragile” – a small failure has a non-linear (and much amplified) effect on the whole system. I could draw a similar analogy with a car taking out one switchbox bringing down Transit Tracker for a large part of TriMet’s system a few months ago.

I recently read Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. He defines systems in three major buckets:

  • Fragile – small failures have big consequences
  • Resilient – hammer the system, it bounces back
  • Antifragile – assaults on the system actually make the system stronger (think human immune system)

So how could we make our transit system not just resilient, but actually antifragile?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this, but I hope TriMet will give it some thought.

Before someone takes a (deserved) shot at Streetcar for opening a service with no spare vehicles (definitely fragile), I’ll point out that having reserve vehicles would not make us antifragile, just resilient. How do we get to antifragile?