Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Streetcars: Understanding Your Planning Objective

This article was originally published to LinkedIn on October 20, 2014.

The streetcar movement in the United States currently possesses an undeniable momentum. Salt Lake City’s 2013 unveiling was followed promptly this year by the opening of a 3.9 mile line in Tucson, Arizona. Testing has begun in our nation’s capital with Atlanta not far behind. Charlotte, Dallas, and Kansas City envision 2015 openings while Cincinnati and Detroit, despite great contention, will see their lines launch in 2016. The sight of all of these developments on the horizon is not to say that there has been a lack of intense criticism, and not simply from the traditional transit-opposed factions. Stemming from these criticisms and other observations, there are steps cities can take to allow their proposal the greatest chance of success. These require an intimate understanding of the role of streetcars in urbanism.

Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar
Photo Credit - Richard Eriksson (CC 2.0)
Seattle, where a streetcar line has been in operation since 2007, is in the process of expanding their streetcar system and planning for future connections. Currently, the entirety of the “system” is the 1.3 mile South Lake Union line. Construction is underway on the 2.5 mile First Hill Streetcar, primarily a link to Sound Transit’s light rail system which would not connect to the South Lake Union line. As Nate Berg reports, both lines are already maligned by opponents, including some respected transit consultants, who criticize the ability of streetcars running in mixed traffic to deliver mobility benefits. Officials counter that a planned Center City Connector, which would operate in exclusive lanes, will improve functionality of the entire network by joining the disparate pieces. This has done little to silence critics who maintain that the opportunity cost of capital investments and service hours elsewhere in the system is too great.

David Alpert of the Greater Greater Washington blog recently stepped up to the plate for the streetcar in a piece for the Atlantic CityLab in which he noted the ability of starter streetcar systems to spur transit expansions. By not making 'perfect' the enemy of the 'good,' regions can begin to build a transit constituency. Alpert makes the case for imperfect transit as a net benefit for cities as it has the ability to start a reinforcing cycle which ultimately lowers driving demand in much the same way that years of auto-oriented project planning has increased driving dependency. The financial arguments that money earmarked for streetcar construction can be redirected toward a better transportation outcome is rebuked by revisiting the Cincinnati Streetcar saga and incoming Mayor John Cranley's campaign promise to use streetcar funds to develop additional highway interchanges. Thus, to undermine the 'good' will almost certainly not result in the 'perfect.'

Photo Credit - MacMillan Publishing
While all salient points, advocates in transit-lacking communities are interested in factors which better predict success for an enhanced transit implementation as they attempt to inform local decision makers. Jeff Speck's latest book, Walkable City, provides extraordinary clarity on the appropriateness of a streetcar implementation as well as how to predict a more successful outcome by understanding what exactly a model streetcar can accomplish.

Speck starts by declaring the streetcar decidedly not rapid transit, but rather a "pedestrian accelerator" and a "place maker." In many cities who are undertaking streetcar studies, the primary rationale is to enliven a district, generally the downtown, and increase pedestrian activity. Speck notes that indeed the opposite condition prevails, that "it is the presence of pedestrian activity that indicates potential for streetcar success." A comparison of Portland, widely considered the gold standard, and Memphis, whose route is twice as long yet carries one-eighth the number of riders per mile, shows that connecting to a yet further enhanced mode (MAX Light Rail) is a critical factor. The other critical factor is the presence of supporting strategies that promote district walkability. Quoting Charlie Hales, Portland's streetcar was implemented in tandem with "a host of other strategies and policies, including higher density, neighborhood-based urban design, [and] elimination of minimum parking requirements..."

Understanding the history of relative success and relative failure of streetcar as a mode to deliver toward certain goals, Speck declares that in order to be effective, systems of this nature should be arranged in one of two configurations:

  • Nodal, to connect walkable districts
  • Linear, to enhance and extend a walkable corridor

In the nodal case, the efficacy of the system breaks down if there is not urbanism of equal quality found at both ends. The more likely to be implemented linear case supposes a unique condition, that a sizable area of underutilized land is found just beyond the comfortable walking distance of an already walkable downtown or urbanized district (Eg. Downtown Portland and the Hoyt Rail Yards). When this condition is met, the three goals of urban vibrancy, increased transit usage, and economic development can all be realized with a design that is not just an enhanced-transit implementation, but also a neighborhood plan. It is this inextricable link between land-use and transportation that allowed Portland to leverage $3.5 billion of new investment since 2001 from a $54.5 million project.

We've seen a number of positions taken regarding the streetcar as a transit tool, as development tool, and sometimes as both. To conclude, communities advocating for additional layers in their transportation system must understand three things to meet their objectives. First, proponents must honestly identify the qualities and shortcomings of their key districts in order to properly identify the anchor of any implementation. Secondly, a coherent real estate strategy/neighborhood plan for both the anchor and the underserved adjacent community must accompany any transportation plan. Finally and perhaps most importantly, a major real estate opportunity should exist, providing a potential benefit to private parties, who in turn can assist in the financing of the endeavor.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Urban Freeway Removal: Lessons from Rochester

This article was originally published to LinkedIn on October 13, 2014.

As detours are set to be installed at the end of the month, the eastern portion of Rochester's Inner Loop expressway will soon be sealed off to traffic. This marks a monumental victory by city staff and urbanism advocates; the first physical step in erasing a figurative noose which has strangled neighborhood connectivity and walkability for multiple generations.

Sheridan Expressway - The Bronx
Photo Credit - Congress for the New Urbanism
Urban freeway removal is currently at the forefront of the national movement toward alternative transportation modes and improved connectivity. At the recent 2014 CNU Transportation Summit, Urban Highways and Social Justice were high on the agenda. Professor Eric Dumbaugh of Florida Atlantic University gave a stellar presentation on negotiating freeway removal for the greater good. His approach was very direct with respect to proving the case of necessity to a misinformed public and leadership, proving that existing traffic counts could be handled easily by the replacement surface boulevard in tandem with the diffusing effect of a reconnected street network. Some basic supporting statistics given during the talk posit that freeway removal results in overall traffic reduction of 11% (median) to 26% (mean).

Additionally, a large contingent of the congress was taken to the Bronx on the final day of the conference to tour the area surrounding the Sheridan Expressway. This one mile long connector between the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway has long been the target of removal efforts by neighborhood organizations, community leaders, and statewide coalitions in order to implement community needs for affordable housing and economic development. One sees many parallels between this stretch of highway and Rochester's Inner Loop in terms of scale, traffic count, and neighborhood effects.

Once the case has successfully been made to local leadership for removal of a facility of this kind, external funding mechanisms must be put in place. In the case of Rochester and other similar mid-size cities, this generally requires a federal grant administered by the FHWA or the USDOT via their TIGER Grant Program. Further convincing of state-level officials is also necessary not only to improve the standing of the coalition requesting the grant (TIGER requires a minimum 20% local funding match), but also because the facility will likely need to be transferred from state DOT ownership. This last point can be daunting, but it can also represent a great advantage for the project due to nationwide fiscal constraints on state highway maintenance budgets.

Rochester Inner Loop
Photo Credit - City of Rochester
If there is one truism about this type of urban expressway built from 1950 to 1970, it is that they are either at or nearing the end of their intended design life. The brilliant approach pursued by City Engineer Jim McIntosh and his staff was one of convincing the New York DOT that both their short and long-term maintenance liabilities would be greatly eased through removal, rather than a piecemeal upkeep strategy. In Rochester's sunken expressway case, structurally deficient overpass bridges provide a key plank in this strategy. Two require replacement, with significant upkeep required for the third, by 2020 at a cost of more than $7 million. Pavement rehabilitation on the expressway proper would be expected to cost $4.8 million in that same time frame. Frontage roads have not been reconstructed in 50 years and are due for $11.9 million in improvements, involving 16,000 square feet of retaining walls. The bottom line is that more than $23 million would be required to address the deteriorating infrastructure. The total price tag for the project? $20,995,036 with the state contributing just $3,800,000 to rid themselves of that future unaffordable responsibility.

The strategy was ultimately successful, and on August 30, 2013 the $16.8M grant was awarded, ensuring that Rochester could take the first step in re-knitting its urban fabric which was ripped apart by legacy planning mistakes of an earlier era. Hopefully other agencies and stakeholders have taken note of Rochester's triumph and are able to find some strategic element applicable to their situation. The city maintains a significant archive of planning documentation at, including the original TIGER grant application. This and other documents stored there represent a fine resource for folks from the Bronx or elsewhere engaged in the effort to reshape our cities with people, rather than vehicle traffic, in mind.