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  #1  
Old Posted May 5, 2010, 5:51 PM
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Light Rail Boom

Light Rail Boom Needs A Second Look


Jul 09 2009

Alan Hoffman

Read More: http://citiwire.net/post/1090/

Quote:
Touted coast to coast as the key to “transit-oriented development,” light rail systems are close to “accepted wisdom” as keys to 21st century metropolitan growth. But it’s worth remembering that the Interstate Highway System, when first promulgated in the 1950s, was widely and uncritically hailed too. Sadly, we failed to take into count the price we’d ultimately pay as the massive roadways subsidized scattered development and simultaneously helped empty out many downtowns. In short, there were winners and losers. Cities since have pumped many billions into reviving downtowns, but even to this day the phrase “inner city” still conjures unfavorable images of the bereft neighborhoods left behind to decay when the middle classes escaped to the fringes.

The spread phenomenon persists. The Cleveland metro region, for example, has about as many people as it did in the 1990s, but it’s expanded its urbanized footprint some 30 percent–mostly to overwhelmingly auto-dependent fringe areas. It’s becoming clear the freeway-based system may not be sustainable. Metro-area auto congestion continues to worsen, urban sprawl continues unabated (while threatening some of our most productive farmland), concerns about greenhouse gas emissions are growing, and there’s the specter of steeply rising prices for “post-peak” oil.

But leaping to light rail could well trigger a new set of unintended consequences. In some locations, it may work well–it is a proven and popular transportation tool. But I’d argue it’s as mismatched to today’s American urban form as was the freeway-centric vision of the 1950s to the urban form of its day. And that we ignore this mismatch at our peril. For good or for bad, the modern American city can be characterized mostly as a widely-scattered set of dispersed origins–essentially, where people live–and multiple destinations–those clusters of employment and retail where people travel to in a given day.
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  #2  
Old Posted May 5, 2010, 9:54 PM
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I agree. I think that light rail is not the best way to go, especially in inner cities. The best way to transport people in large cities is heavy rail/subway. However, thay aren't as cheap as light rail (hey, you get what you pay for), so I think the days of building subways (at least in the US) are over.
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  #3  
Old Posted May 5, 2010, 10:18 PM
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^Heavy rail works best in really large cities like New York, Mexico, Chicago, London, Tokyo, Osaka, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc. because they can transport larger volumes of people.

HRT can be just as bad in inner cities as LRT. It just needs to be designed well. It can't rip up neighbourhoods like freeways do, it can't create dead ends for roads, it can't be difficult or somehow confusing to get to the platform, it can't have big ugly barriers separating the ROW from traffic and sidewalk, etc.

Light rail is fine anywhere as long as it's designed well. Usually it works best by taking a lane or two away from an existing road rather than demo'ing buildings or parking lots or parks closest to the existing road and tearing it up for new tracks as it reduces the width of the road making it more friendly for people to walk to their train station. LRT goes through Downtown Vancouver, Downtown San Diego, Downtown Calgary, Downtown Edmonton, Downtown Portland, etc. and are highly used and accessible.
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  #4  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 12:01 AM
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LRT is fine as long as it's grade-separated. Otherwise it's really just a glorified streetcar. Ironically, most of the new "LRT" systems have WORSE service frequency than a streetcar. LRT trains that run once every 15 or 20 minutes AND are not grade-separated for some or all of their length are not "rapid transit", despite what they may be called.
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  #5  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 12:35 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by J. Will View Post
LRT is fine as long as it's grade-separated. Otherwise it's really just a glorified streetcar. Ironically, most of the new "LRT" systems have WORSE service frequency than a streetcar. LRT trains that run once every 15 or 20 minutes AND are not grade-separated for some or all of their length are not "rapid transit", despite what they may be called.
QFT.

Light rail transit is not to be confused with streetcars. They need to be frequent too (5-10 mins) or else you just have a bus system on rails.
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  #6  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 1:37 AM
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^No, there are still other factors that keep it separate from a bus...

Regardless of if the train's frequency on avg is 1 min, 2 min, 5 min, 15 min, 26 min, 45 min, 50 min, 69 min, 100 min, 1 000 000 000 000 000 min it is still a train not a bus. For example, a train like LRT may or may not be too frequent, but when that train does come, it will bypass regular traffic whereas regular buses will be in it. Streetcars like those in Toronto and Portland are definitely close to buses though.
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  #7  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 2:19 AM
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Originally Posted by haljackey View Post
QFT.

Light rail transit is not to be confused with streetcars. They need to be frequent too (5-10 mins) or else you just have a bus system on rails.
Light Rail essentially is an upgraded version of a streetcar, and many light rail systems have significant portions that run in the street. Even one of America's prime examples of a fantastic light rail system in Portland runs right in the middle of downtown streets. Denver's RTD: runs in downtown streets.
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  #8  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 2:28 AM
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Originally Posted by Brandon716 View Post
Light Rail essentially is an upgraded version of a streetcar, and many light rail systems have significant portions that run in the street. Even one of America's prime examples of a fantastic light rail system in Portland runs right in the middle of downtown streets. Denver's RTD: runs in downtown streets.
Yet St. Louis' LRT is almost completely grade-separated (on the MO side at least) save for a small handful of very lightly-traveled roads.

Systems like this are more expensive than street-running lines, but they gain speed, reliability, and scalability.

My personal choice would be lines that start out with a modest amount of grade separation but are able to be reconstructed and expanded as demand grows. Reserving land for platform extensions or flyovers is a great way to do this, and it's always better to set aside land sooner rather than later - it's not gonna get any cheaper than it is now, since land pretty much always appreciates.

Massive new transport projects, like highways or transit lines, are always going to be boondoggles unless the political will exists behind them to enact the kinds of land-use changes that allow cities and towns to take advantage of those new lines. Suburbs are all too eager to zone for massive strip malls and power centers around their highway interchanges, but city governments often have trouble getting residents on board with the increased density that's needed to justify a new transit project.
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  #9  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 2:29 AM
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^^Yes, sure, but they operate on their own ROWs, don't get stuck in traffic, don't have to wait for lights, etc. like a regular streetcar would (like say Portland's, your example).
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  #10  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 2:53 AM
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The author quoted by OP is seriously wrong on multiple counts. First of all, it is not anything close to "accepted wisdom" that light rail should be everywhere. Every single city it's proposed in always faces a major battle for that first line. Secondly, his supposition that because we have spread out cities now we mustn't ever plan for anything else is simply wrong. He doesn't seem to understand that transportation guides land use.

At a very basic level he is correct that we shouldn't presuppose light rail as a panacea to all urban ills. That might be an interesting point, if anybody were doing that. No one is.

Now, if you'd like to talk about whether light rail as a cheaper regional metro is the right way to go (as opposed to say, a model favoring a combination of regional commuter rail and local streetcars), *that* would be a useful discussion. Personally, I do think that commuter rail + streetcars would be better in many cities than the hybrid LRT lines they are building. Alas, the author cited by OP doesn't seem on that level of sophistication.
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  #11  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 3:57 AM
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"Streetcars" can run in their own rights of way, essentially its the same technology as light rail. The biggest difference is the capacity, otherwise its essentially the same technology.

There is a clear difference between capacity of light rail and traditional streetcars, but not so much between streetcar technology and light rail technology. They both follow the same basic principles for electrification and modern streetcars are only a tad smaller to allow for in-street operation.
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  #12  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 4:11 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Brandon716 View Post
Light Rail essentially is an upgraded version of a streetcar, and many light rail systems have significant portions that run in the street. Even one of America's prime examples of a fantastic light rail system in Portland runs right in the middle of downtown streets. Denver's RTD: runs in downtown streets.
Denver's Central Corridor LRT runs in dedicated ROW between the street and the side walk, in downtown. This was the LRT starter line opened in 1993. I think it was 2001, the CPV LRT downtown line opened, which routed most LRT trains entering downtown along a new, dedicated ROW along freight rail (not streets) into Denver Union Station in Lower Downtown (LoDo). As part of FasTracks, RTD will convert most of the Central Corridor LRT running along downtown streets, into a single LRT car modern streetcar starter line.

So all 4-car LRT trains will by-pass downtown streets and run down the CPV directly to Union Station. A few 3-car LRT trains will run into downtown on the original Central Corridor through the Convention Center and 4 blocks into downtown on dedicated streetside ROW to the 16th Street mall, circling back around out of downtown via the downtown LRT loop. The remainder of the downtown LRT line will be extended and converted to a streetcar starter line.

Here's what RTD is doing with Denver's Central Corridor downtown LRT:
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  #13  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 4:24 AM
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I've visited Denver many times over the past decade, it still operates in the street.. Has to stop at intersections, and it slows the network down.

Not a bad system by any means, it's certainly something to be proud of. But just saying Light Rail when in a street still slows down. It's good that they are improving on it. These light rail systems will never be heavy rail in any way, shape, or form. They share a lot of similarities with their streetcar brethren.

Really I have a strong bias here, I don't even think about Portland or Denver - let alone St Louis - when I think of light rail transit. I think of what they are doing up in Toronto with Transit City, which I think several of the lines they propose are utter waste. The city is about to be on a light rail bonanza when it really needs a heavy rail expansion, so this light rail fad has affected cities that actually depend on transit for their backbone instead of demonstration lines or "supplemental" lines where only a small percent of people in a metro use it to fuel the central city.

Here in Buffalo - a city that gets no respect for what it is - the light rail line is as bizarre as it is cute. For its track to UBSouth, its underground the entire route except downtown where it becomes an above ground trolley of sorts on the Main Street Mall. However, the mall is traffic free, but they are considering adding cars back (albeit keeping ROW for the LRT).

But you can't mention Buffalo since the city gets virtually no respect from any angle (including me, before I moved here and realize its a real city that does function). Light rail makes sense for places like Buffalo with light transit usage and needs, but light rail is a fad that really has affected development in major urban centers. New York built a LRT to JFK instead of extending the NYC Subway network, Toronto is building this new Transit City project (or maybe not depending on how funding goes), and then you have cities like London that implemented a heavy version of light rail in projects like the Docklands Light Rail.

I've ridden the DLR, its an impressive "heavy" version of light rail. THAT is light rail done right.
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  #14  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 4:28 AM
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^Not when it's on it's own ROW which most LRT networks are.
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  #15  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 4:32 AM
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Eh, there's just "ROW" and then there is totally grade separated ROW where it doesn't have to go through intersections. Some light rail lines with ROW still have to go through intersections and has some mixing with traffic. I don't like that kind of light rail. St Louis seems to be a good example of LRT done right in this regard. I assume Edmonton is the same? I forget what kind of system you guys have, but I'm under the assumption that it doesn't intersect with traffic even in its own ROW lanes. I've had the net benefit of visiting/living and riding all these systems in Portland, Denver, St Louis, Toronto, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, London, etc... But I've never been to Edmonton.

The Metro here in Buffalo is just totally bizzaire. I've never seen a city build an entire underground subway-style LRT outside of downtown, and magically rise above ground in the main downtown highrise corridor. Its just the most peculiar system ever, and totally underrated.
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  #16  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 4:37 AM
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^The light rail going past intersections (or rather through) doesn't effect the speed or efficiency of the train though, as it has the right to go past the intersection and past the cars regardless of lights.

Edmonton's is kinda a mix. The original NE line does cross some roads, but mostly goes underneath or above roads or creates dead ends. It ripped some neighbourhoods up similar to a fwy, although less brutally and obviously. This line also did a terrible job servicing the nearby neighbourhoods and just had the main purpose of getting to the sports complexes which are dead zones for much of the year.

Downtown and University is underground but LRT.

The new SLRT line (which is really the same line as the NE) has some parts that go under major roads, but most of it crosses major intersections like 114 St/University Ave and 53 Ave/111 St. It causes some long waits for cars, but I say screw 'em, light rail should be the priority.

The new low floor lines that have been approved (now just need funding) will be similar to Portland's system and go through more intersections.
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  #17  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 4:41 AM
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While Buffalo's population is obviously stagnant, and the economics of the region isn't oriented toward growth because of obvious conditions, I'm surprised about a number of things this unlikely hometown of mine offers. The Light Rail system is more subway-like of any system I've used. While its kind-of a Stubway since the line isn't too large, its actually quite effective at being a real system since the bus system integrates well.

Here's a typical Buffalo Subway station:

source: www.buffalonewyorktourism.com

And a video:
Video Link

source: wyliepoon
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  #18  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 5:45 AM
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Buffalo's system seems very bizarre. That said, I'm jealous because, for the time being, Calgary has no underground stations (our first, Westbrook, will open in 2012 as part of the WLRT).
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  #19  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 6:14 AM
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I think what the article really means to say is that putting too many resources in a handful of high-capacity transit routes in decentralized places where transit isn't really useful to begin with does not a good backbone for a city make, just like how highways and suburbs of the 1950's put concentrated cities and downtowns out of business.

I used to, and still am, a fan of light rail and like so many guys I think trains are sort of cool. But with some rational thinking, its not all that.

I'm not a planner or know a lot about this subject, but if I had to come up with an idea for a transit upgrade to a sprawling city, I would begin with strategically located bus-only roadways that bypass bottlenecks along corridors where multiple routes converge and form trunks. Then, I would look at routes which either were too sparsely utilized or too crowded and decide on alternatives.

For a crowded line, light rail running on whatever ROW type circumstances called for would be alright. A Metro or Subway would probably never be needed outside of super-dense cities or if the planned route ended up being all grade-separated and something like Vancouver Skytrain made sense just because you could safely automate it and save money on operation costs.

For routes where the average vehicle was carrying a sub-optimal number of riders I would switch to mini-buses or jitney vans. Of course I dislike, aesthetically speaking, those "short bus" vehicles, and would prefer if one was designed that looked like and was boarded in the manner of a urban bus, with a flat front and tall windows. Anyways, these would use HOV/HOT lanes on highways and serve places like office parks, and be instituted or curtailed based on demand and seasonal factors.

Last edited by llamaorama; May 6, 2010 at 6:28 AM.
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  #20  
Old Posted May 6, 2010, 7:18 AM
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Buffalo's system seems very bizarre. That said, I'm jealous because, for the time being, Calgary has no underground stations (our first, Westbrook, will open in 2012 as part of the WLRT).
The WLRT video has a groovy soundtrack, for a demonstration video...

BTW, I think the problem with transit planning is forgetting the future and forecasting. Making an appropriate investment, even if it costs more, is the best option because of what can develop after its built. It is an infrastructure investment that will last many, many decades and if maintained correctly indefinitely into the future. I don't think transit is like highways because once you build a transit line, due to the nature of it, development can be radically different than building a highway in the middle of nowhere. Transit is typically built in areas that are already somewhat populated, or very populated. It allows a city to become more developed and redevelop existing neighborhoods as opposed to growth in the middle of nowhere.

And in large urban centers, light rail isn't always enough, but is a good compliment to any core system.

For example, light rail is a good supplemental or starter system for predominantly auto-oriented cities like Denver that will probably never see major transit usage in our lifetimes, but for urban centres like Toronto or New York (places that really depend on transit) it makes more sense to build out heavy rail in the core (already done in NY, hopefully more to come in Toronto) while light rail acts as a supplement to the main heavy rail system. In Toronto's case, the only Transit City line I generally agree with is Eglinton. They should trash the rest of the system and just funnel those funds into building a DRL and other subway enhancements in a mixed fashion. What they have proposed and begun construction on with Sheppard is a total disaster. I don't know of any city that has taken a starter subway line and built the rest of it as LRT with transfer points on a subway line that already requires a secondary transfer point. Transit City is effectively becoming Transfer City. Its the wrong implementation of light rail in that respect, at least for the non-Eglinton lines.

While I was kind of complaining about the JFK light rail system, in a way its a more affordable option for a feeder line that makes sense. Its not the backbone of the network, its just the airport feeder service.

This makes sense for cities that are actually urban/transit oriented. Light rail makes sense for cities that really just have it as a supplement to an auto-oriented culture, such as in St Louis or Denver. Its better to have something than nothing, especially if we ever begin to have major energy supply disruptions. That's the only time I could see cities like Portland, Denver, St Louis, etc start to build serious amounts of TOD development with tens of thousands of housing units around transit and business office parks around transit.
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