Three Lines in the City of Angels

February 5, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

During a recent week in southern California, I was able to ride three transit lines: the San Pedro Pacific Electric line, San Diego’s Silver Line and L.A.’s light rail Blue Line. Each offers some lessons for transit properties.

San Pedro’s short re-creation of a Pacific Electric line is a tourist ride, not real transit. Over a couple of miles of private right-of-way, it connects the San Pedro cruise ship terminal, an edge of downtown San Pedro and the (quite good) Maritime Museum. There area couple of stops beyond the museum, but there is nothing there.

Equipment consists of two replica PE cars, built to a high standard, and one vintage PE car that almost never runs. The ride is pleasant enough, but to be more than a ride, the line would need to loop through downtown San Pedro, not merely skirt it. That would still only provide real transit for cruise ship passengers. To serve the locals, it would have to connect to L.A.’s light rail system on its inland end.

San Pedro’s museum or Disneyland-type experience was embodied in a “safety” culture take to an absurd level, to the point where passengers were not allowed to adjust window shades on their own; a crewman had to do it. Britain’s Health and Safety Ministry has become the worst tyrant in England since Henry VIII: we should not allow similar excesses to afflict transit here, or even just “rides” for that matter.

San Diego’s Silver Line lies somewhere between a “ride” and real transit. Looping through the downtown on existing light rail trackage, it is served by a beautifully-restored PCC streetcar in original San Diego colors, which happens to be the one of the best color schemes for PCCs I have seen (PCCs ran in San Diego from 1937 to 1949). I rode on a Saturday, and only a couple of people appeared to be using the line for transportation. Most were just taking a ride.

The operator said his PCC carries a pretty good crowd on weekdays for the “lunch rush,” but the Silver Line is not likely to become real transit as long as it only operates Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Daily operation is essential it something is to become part of people’s lives, which is what transit should seek to do. Unlike the San Pedro line, the Silver Line serves real destinations, so with daily operation it could become a useful part of San Diego’s ever-expanding electric rail network.

The third line I rode was Los Angeles’ light rail Blue Line, with a short connection via the heavy rail Red Line (subway) to L.A.’s magnificent Union Station. That ride was in many ways the strangest.

The Blue Line is unquestionably real transit, now carrying almost 85,000 weekday passengers. Our mid-day trains were both crowded. Technically, it is a model operation. The track is excellent, the cars ride well and quietly, and the run on the former Pacific Electric right-of-way is fast. Unfortunately, in street running the Blue Line lacks pre-emption, which significant slows down the trip.

Despite its technical quality, I would think hard before riding the Blue Line again. On-board disorder is out of control, to the point where the travel experience feels Third World. The line serves Watts, which is now more Hispanic than black, but provides lots of passengers whose behavior is sub-standard. On the way into town, we were treated for most of the trip to a loud altercation between two blacks, one of whom apparently touched the other with his coat. Both were up in years, so it didn’t go beyond a shouting match, but with three small children in my party it was unnerving.

Then, two young black males in the seat in front of mine decided they wanted to talk. Our discussion was friendly, not threatening, but one of them was clearly stoned. I could not help wondering what comes next, after the conversation. Fortunately, in this case the answer was nothing. It seemed common for passengers to talk to strangers on the Blue Line, which may be just be a cultural difference from the East Coast. But to an easterner, it again smacked of disorder. (Luckily, one rider talked to us to warn not to be on the trains when the high schools let out and many students ride them; if even the locals find the results too disordered, I can imagine what that’s like.)

Most disturbing to someone with some knowledge of transit was the constant parade of butchers through the cars, most swelling food or drink. There were at least three working each of the trains I rode. Again, there was nothing threatening about it per se. I was even tempted to buy a bottle of cold water on what was a hot day, but I realized I could not legally drink it on board nor know whose bathtub it might have been filled from.

The problem is that such butchers are breaking the law. Since LA Metro allows it to be broken so blatantly and so often, what message is being sent to those whose ambitions for getting some money might go beyond selling things? As the “broken windows” approach to urban policing, which has been quite successful, argues, letting small offenses go encourages larger ones.

I seem to recall that when the Blue Line opened, there was a cop on every train. That is hideously expensive, but for this line, it would also appear necessary if the public is to be given an ordered environment. I saw no police on any of the trains I rode (I saw them often on Washington’s Metro), though two ticket-checkers came through.

My friends who live in the L.A. area told me the level of disorder is even higher on other LA Light Rail lines. If so, the city has a problem. It certainly has one on the Blue Line. Disorder will drive riders-from-choice away faster than anything else. If L.A.’s light rail is to deliver on its promise of getting people out of their cars, they must feel as safe on board transit as they do in their cars. From what I observed, the Blue Line has a long way to go to meet that standard.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

[Ed. Note: LA Metro has announced a $1.2 billion plan to revitalize The Blue Line. In addition to purchasing new vehicles and refurbishing existing rolling stock, upgrading power systems and rebuilding the trackway, the plan also includes installing new surveillance cameras, enhancing the police presence and implementing additional safety measures]

The Cincinnati Streetcar Lives!

January 14, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

The Greek General, Pyrrhus of Epirus, remarked after attaining three victories over the Romans, “If we are victorious in one more battle, we shall be utterly ruined.” Well, Cincinnati’s streetcar has won two referenda, endured raucous political debate, and finally, survived a bombastic effort by the new Mayor, John Cranley, to bring the streetcar to a permanent halt. Hopefully, there won’t be a need for that fourth victory to insure the completion of this project.

The city of Cincinnati has taken the right step, choosing to complete its oft attacked streetcar project rather than taking a huge financial hit and halting all work (shades of the abandoned Cincinnati subway, two miles of which continue to molder away under city roads). The new mayor, who actively campaigned to stop the streetcar in its tracks (pun intended), found that his election didn’t turn on this project but on the fiscal problems now plaguing the city and dissatisfaction with the previous Mallory administration. His ultimately futile effort sparked an amazing grass roots effort (spearheaded by Believe in Cincinnati, organized immediately after the new mayor was elected) to save the streetcar. The first segment of the streetcar project (costing $133 million for 3.8 miles) was grounded in revitalizing a section of the city (Over the Rhine, or OTR) while laying a basis for extensions into other parts of city. From the start, the streetcar has held great promise in Cincinnati for revolutionizing how people might choose to travel in the city proper. The streetcar could also provide the entry trackage for any light rail system built to connect with the surrounding suburbs.

Trying to divine the reasons why the new mayor so abhorred the streetcar might be a fool’s errand. Perhaps, as with many unschooled in the intricacies of transit, he equated the streetcar with the bus and saw a huge disparity in costs, additional costs unjustified, in his mind, by the mode. But the streetcar is much more than simply getting someone from point A to point B. Heck, Roman chariots could do that (with real horsepower but also, at a ratio of one operator per passenger, high operating costs!). The streetcar can succeed, as part of a well-conceived and implemented plan, by sparking quality economic development, such as is now being experienced in the OTR district. Streetcars are ridership magnets. This translates into fewer trips by car, especially for those trivial trips easily served by the streetcar. In Europe, planners talk of the “tram bonus.” When a European city substitutes streetcars for buses, city planners expect to reap an additional 25 -50% riders over the previous bus line (and they get it!). For those all important Millennials, now increasingly moving into downtowns around the nation, streetcars offer the quality transportation they expect in walkable, pedestrian-friendly urban environments. Finally, and no less important, the streetcar provides a sense of place, of permanency, and of official commitment. Streetcars can and do foster and bind cohesive neighborhoods in ways that buses simply cannot. We conservatives look kindly on streetcars for these very reasons. [N.B.: This is not to ignore the venerable bus. It is and will remain the workhorse in our nation’s cities, large, medium and small. It holds a significant place in furthering mobility, especially for lower-income groups, in our nation’s cities. Preserving and enhancing bus service is always a key component in any city’s transit operation.]

Cincinnati is not alone in choosing the streetcar as a catalyst for change. By my count, a total of thirteen (13) U.S. cities are currently constructing streetcar lines (including the Queen City). Our website lists all streetcar projects under construction (or just opened), authorized, or moving toward approval and can be found at: www.theamericanconservative.com/cpt (scroll down on the right side of the home page to Urban Rail Statistics and click on Streetcar Projects Across the U.S.).

The most successful streetcar operation in the country is Portland, OR, where almost 17,000 Portlanders take the streetcar every weekday, followed by Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar. Both cities have experienced robust growth along the route of the streetcar. In Tucson, AZ, which looks to open its 3.9 mile streetcar line in mid-2014, city officials are already pointing to $250 million in downtown development sparked by the coming of the streetcar. At least an additional $1 billion is expected over the next decade as the streetcar becomes part of the urban fabric. Washington, DC’s H Street, NE corridor, to be served early in 2014 by the first streetcar to operate in that city since January, 1962, has experienced a burst of renewal activity, the first in that corridor since the 1968 riots.

We are gratified that the project will move forward, and hope the city’s leaders will grasp the importance of extending the streetcar to the University of Cincinnati campus, a major source of urban activity and an obvious key destination. Maybe this will be that fourth victory, but unlike poor Pyrrhus, Cincinnati’s fortunes will only improve and flourish. They can thank Believe in Cincinnati for that!

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Some Busway Realities

December 19, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Arguments in favor of busways as an alternative to rail transit are gathering steam, in part because of the success of Cleveland’s HealthLine, which connects Public Square with University Circle via Euclid Avenue. As a Clevelander, I know some things about the HealthLine and the development it has supposed to have brought that non-natives may not be aware of.

First, the reason the HealthLine is a busway instead of a streetcar line is political. The project was undertaken during the administration of President George W. Bush. That administration, which was owned by the oil industry, hated passenger rail, Cleveland knew that if it requested federal funds for any rail project on Euclid, the answer would have been “no.” So it requested a busway instead, and got the money.

Shortly before the HealthLine opened, I was given a tour of it. An RTA official, who took me on the tour, told me the above. He made it clear he knew the streetcar would have been better. But a busway – – a real one, not just some lines painted on a street – – was better than nothing, and nothing was the only other option. He added that the busway project had done all the necessary work, such as utility relocation, so converting it to streetcar would be simple, just a matter of laying the track, putting up the overhead and buying some streetcars.

It is important to note that building the HealthLine busway was about as expensive as a streetcar line. Studies that compare its construction cost with the construction cost of Light Rail are setting up a straw man. A stand-alone Light Rail line down Euclid Avenue, all running in-street, would make no sense. The venue is appropriate for streetcar, not Light Rail.

Busways, as their ridership rises, become more expensive to operate than light rail or streetcar because each vehicle requires a driver. Cleveland streetcars had a long history of pulling trailers, which in effect doubled capacity without additional labor costs. Ottawa is a current good example of a busway strangling on its own success. The number of buses required to accommodate exploding demand overwhelmed the busway and downtown streets. Consequently, Ottawa is currently building a light rail line to replace the busway and provide the capacity needed for the near present and future demand in the corridor. The Orange Line in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley also reveals the biggest flaw in busways. The line is essentially at capacity and adding more buses only results in a much slower service and higher operating costs, denying the service its full potential. Each additional bus adds another driver and increasing labor costs.

Don’t get me wrong; the HealthLine has been successful, in terms of both ridership and effect on development, compared to bus-on-arterial it replaced (which was nonetheless Cleveland’s heaviest bus line). But that is very different from saying it is better than streetcars would have been.
Looking at claims that the HealthLine has brought billions of dollars of new development to Euclid Avenue, some local knowledge is useful. Much, perhaps most of the development traces to the expansion of Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic’s growth goes back long before the HealthLine was conceived, and would have occurred busway or no.

Another important factor is the shift of the epicenter of black crime east and south, which has permitted an economic and social upturn not only along Euclid but more broadly in the area from Public Square to University Circle, stretching north from Carnegie Avenue to Lake Erie. A large influx of Chinese immigrants into this area, especially west of E. 55th Street, has brought major improvement. I know, because my church is on E. 55th between Euclid and Superior. A few years ago, the only pedestrians on E. 55th were black. Now, many are white or Asian. Since the black rate of violent crime is twelve times the white rate, a change in the ethnic mix is important for economic reasons.

While the HealthLine has seen an increase in riders-from-choice compared to the previous bus line, the Euclid Avenue route remains heavily used, especially in rush hour, by transit dependents. The HealthLine’s success does not demonstrate that busways are as effective as streetcars in drawing riders-from-choice. Since riders-from-choice usually have significant discretionary income, they remain key to spurring economic development. From that perspective, rail transit is still in the motorman’s seat, while busways have yet to prove their case.

Some busway advocates no doubt really believe they can do as much for urban redevelopment as rail transit – - again, an unproven assertion. But many remain closet advocates for continued automobile domination. They know rail transit compete successfully with automobiles, while buses usually cannot. They push buses instead of rail because their real loyalty (sometimes connected to their pocketbooks) is to cars. That game has been going on since the 1920s, and urbanists should not let themselves fall for it. The proven case remains clear: if you want to get people out of their cars, give them rail.

William S. Lind serves as Director of the The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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