Saturday, March 27, 2010

Towards a taxonomy of rail (and bus) services

Jarrett Walker had an interesting piece at Human Transit the other day, entitled "Streetcars vs light rail:  is there a difference?" which noted that rail-based transit services marketed as "light rail", and those marketed as "streetcars" (in North America) or "trams" (in the UK and many other places in the English-speaking world; unfortunately the word "tram" has a different meaning in the US lexicon), often have similar service profiles.  In the comment, I compared and contrasted several different segments of Portland's rail transit network, including a few hypotheticals.

Obviously, the vehicles used have differences--"streetcars" being smaller lighter vehicles which are suitable for mixed-traffic operation, and have a weight profile similar to busses and trucks.  The primary performance drawbacks of streetcar-class vehicles is a smaller passenger capacity, and a relatively low top speed, compared to larger vehicles.   Light-rail vehicles aren't really light at all--they are frequently as heavy as other passenger railcars (though not as much as locomotives and fully-loaded freight cars), and require stronger roadbeds and such--the primary difference between a LRT and a "metro" car is the platform height, and LRT almost exclusively uses overhead catenary for power, whereas many metros use third-rail power.

But Jarrett's point is--to the transit patron, the engineering particulars of the vehicle matter very little--what is important is the service profile--which has much more to do with the fixed infrastructure and the stop spacing, then it does with the vehicle itself.

And the term "light rail", which is a useful term when referring to the class of vehicles described above, is found in many different service profiles.  It's rare to see LRT running in mixed traffic for any considerable distance (MAX and cars used to share the center lanes of the Steel Bridge; but nowadays cars are limited to the outer lanes only)--but MAX has several different service profiles within the same system.

(Much of the same applies to the term "bus rapid transit", but even moreso--the term gets used for everything from mixed-traffic lines like LA's Metro Rapid, to the extensive busway networks in Brisbane).

Here's a taxonomy which I like to peddle, and how it applies to both rail and bus:

  • Level 0:  Mixed traffic running, very frequent stops (<1000ft) , sometimes with limited signal pre-emption, queue jump lanes, or similar.   Streetcar/tram, local bus.  Most of Portland Streetcar counts, as do the vast majority of TriMet's bus lines.
  • Level 1:  Dedicated lanes, frequent stops (1000-2000ft), usually adjacent to cars, sometimes with limited signal pre-emption, lots of cross traffic.  "Tramway" seems to be a common name for this in Europe when referring to rail; "bus lane" is a common term for this in the US for busses.  The Portland Transit Mall, and the red/blue MAX line downtown, are examples of this
  • Level 2:  Dedicated lanes, less frequent stops (2000-4000 feet).  Generally adjacent to traffic, albeit with some physical separation; and featuring signal pre-emption.  The Yellow Line along Interstate is an example for MAX.  EmX in Eugene is an example of a level 2 BRT system.
  • Level 3:  Dedicated surface infrastructure, relatively infrequent stops (3000-5000 feet), infrequent and protected crossings.  Usually has signal priority, especially if rail based (due to longstanding legal precedent).  If rail-based, often features rails running on open ballast rather than in pavement.  The Blue Line between Beaverton and Hillsboro is a good example of this.  The LA Orange Line is a bus-based example, albeit without signal priority. 
  • Level 4:  Mostly grade-separated, infrequent stops (4000-7000 feet), few crossings, full signal priority where crossings do occur.  May have pedestrian crossings of the route at platforms.  Quite a few parts of MAX meet this standard, including the stretch between Sunset and Goose Hollow, the Banfield segment, the Green Line south of Gateway, and the Red Line spur to the airport.  Some busways, such as found in Ottawa and Brisbane, also meet this standard.  "Metro lite".
  • Level 5:  Fully grade-separated, fully protected ROW, very infrequent stops.  No pedestrian access to route whatsoever.  Crossings are extremely rare if permitted at all.  Suitable for driverless operation and third-rail power.   Most subways and els meet this standard; the differences between this and 4 don't really apply to busses.
  • Level X:  Mixed-traffic running on high-performance routes, point-to-point service over longer distances.  Several miles, typically, between stops.  Express busses, commuter rail.  WES is an example, as are the various "X" bus lines.

Monday, March 15, 2010

CNN: Portland #2 "time saving" city

According to a report on CNN, Portland is the #2 "time saving" city in the US (Seattle is #1, San Fran is #3).

Granted, this article is a puff piece, and I seriously doubt much painstaking research went into it--but it's interesting nonetheless.  Portland was praised for its walkable downtown (with lots of good eats) and its transit system, its farmers markets, and widespread wifi.  And apparently, we've got a good supply of doctors in town, as wait times to see one are low.

Now if we could just get that unemployment rate down.....

Sunday, March 14, 2010

An idea that should be flushed down the toilet.

The City of Portland is looking to expand its bicycle infrastructure.  The DHT thinks this is a good thing--bicycle commuting is great for the environment, good for folks' health, and the infrastructure is cheap.  The city already has a high bicycle mode share for commutes, despite not having great biking weather, and a great way to reduce vehicle congestion (if that's your primary concern) is to have people off the road.

That said, taking $20 million in sewer money, to help pay for it, is kinda a dumb idea.

Would it be acceptable for PGE to ask for (and obtain) a rate increase to pay for a new high-capacity transmission line, or a new powerplant--and then pocket the savings should the work come in under budget?  Not under the current regulatory regime.  Were the project OVER budget, after all, and PGE responsible for the overrun--ratepayers would be asked to make up the difference.  Likewise, were the Big Pipe to have cost overruns rather than savings, the City Council would be hitting up Portlanders for a rate increase--not transferring money from some other public function to cover the shortfall.

And of course,, such shenanigans happened when PGE was owned by Enron--a corporation which was the Gordon Ramsey of cooking the books.  Even though Enron is now gone, many remain suspicious of PGE's good faith towards ratepayers... inclucing, it seems, the City of Portland--who has numerous times suggested that it might just want to condemn the utility.  (Given that much of PGE's customers are outside of Portland, this always struck me as a dumb idea).  I don't have a terribly strong opinion either way on public vs private utilities (either is fine by me), but in either case, the utility ought to be regulated largely for the benefit of its customers, with the owning entity entitled to some fixed piece of the action.  Utilities operated by PUDs or municipal governments ought not to be engaging in practices that would be considered outrageous if done by a private-sector utility.

Now obviously, bike infrastructure is a legitimate public purpose, so the comparison between a private utility skimming off a profit windfall and the City's funding plan, isn't an exact one--but given the high rates paid by ratepayers, and lots of maintenance issues remaining with the pipes under the streets--this transfer of funds is unwise--politically, at least.  It's a shortcut.  It causes people to lose faith in government.

Where should the money come from, instead?  The roads budget comes to mind...


Chris Smith at with an op-ed arguing that the idea isn't so bad--essentially, what is being proposed is a runoff mitigation project which happens to have bike lanes as a design feature.  I've no objection to that, provided that the benefit to sewerage operations is actually shown rather than merely alleged.  (Which it may have been).  And even then--I'd prefer a slightly different accounting be used--I'd use sewer money to do the actual drainage projects (possibly expanding the scope of the project somewhat), and use transportation dollars to fund the differential cost of the bike facilities on the top of them.

While "sewer ratepayers fund bikeways" may actually be good policy, it still isn't very good politics.  OTOH, a good case can be made that good policy (and not good politics) is exactly what our elected officials should be focused on.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Quote for the Week

There are few things more tragic than unfulfilled paranoia.

--Markos Moulitsas, answering an "Obama is Hitler" email on Daily Kos.

Is WES overpriced?

In a prior post, we explored the question of whether WES was underpriced--a legitimate concern for a service which financially, is a decent-sized hole below TriMet's waterline.  Not a get-out-the-life-rafts-and-call-the-Coast-Guard hole, but definitely an all-hands-below-decks hole. 

The pricing analysis, on the other hand, was quite simple--compare WES's fares with similar-length trips on other West Coast commuter rail systems.  In all cases, WES was cheaper--often by a significant amount, and your WES ticket is good for a transfer elsewhere in the TriMet system--whereas with the other services, if you wanted to continue on local transit, you needed a separate ticket or pass for that.

Can I take WES to San Jose?

There's a big problem with that analysis though--transit is not fungible.  A ride on WES is not a substitute for a ride on CalTrain--if you want to get from Gilroy to San Jose, WES won't take you there.  Likewise, an 800 square foot apartment in Hoboken or Rockwood is not a substitute for a similar apartment in Manhattan or the Pearl.  (On the other hand, were a car dealer in Portland to start selling cars for half price; you would likely see significant out-of-area orders--automobiles of the same make and model are  fungible, and a car bought in Oregon is just as good as one bought in Utah). 

This suggests that comparing ticket prices between Washington County and the Silicon Valley is perhaps not as informative as we would like.  It's not useless--if you assume similar cost structures, it's not unreasonable to assume that similar fare structures ought to result--it just ignores the realities of the demand side of the market.

And the market suggests, on the other hand, that WES might actually be overpriced.  Think about it--next to nobody rides the thing.  If it were underpriced in a plato-economic sense, then in theory, the trains would be crushloaded and people would be left behind on the platform--at the very least, they would run near capacity.  The fact that demand is low indicates that few people view the service as worth the price.

But herein lies the rub:  If a service is underpriced from a cost point, but overpriced from a demand point--just what does that mean? 

The Worst of Both Worlds

It means the service, as structured, is Probably Not A Good Idea.  Were it a private concern it would be belly-up already.  Something which is not attractive to customers, yet expensive to produce, is not a business you want to be in. 

But just WHY is WES in such dire straits?  Again, let's compare WES to some of its West Coast brethren; the comparison ignores connecting local transit in all cases. (Data from Wikipedia):

  • WES:  5 stations, 16 route-miles, one line, 1260 ppd (passengers per day)
  • Sounder:  9 stations (3 more under constructoin) , 82 route miles, two lines, 9760 ppd
  • CalTrain: 32 stations, 77 route-miles, one line, 39k ppd
  • MetroLink: 55 stations, >500 route-miles, 7 linkes, 47k ppd.
  • Coaster (San Diego):  8 stations, 41 route miles, 1 line, 6000 ppd.
  • FrontRunner:  8 stations, 44 route miles, 1 line, 4800 ppd.
In all five systems (other than WES) listed above, the size of the network (both in terms of destinations served, and distance spanned), is bigger than WES.  Four of the systems mentioned are in urban areas far bigger than Portland, but even FrontRunner, which connects Salt Lake to Ogden, gets four times the ridership (and is still below its projections).  Another important thing to note is that the other systems listed either operate in giant megalopoli, or run between a major city and smaller-but-important exurbs.  WES connects--Beaverton to Wilsonville.  That's it.  No knock on either town, of course, but there's probably not enough commuter rail business in the corridor to really justify that type of service.  WES might be overpriced even if it were free--and if you're using it to hop on MAX and get downtown, or happen to have a TriMet pass for other reasons--it IS free.

But wait... there's more!

All six systems run on active freight lines for at least part of their routes, and thus are subject to FRA regulations concerning things like crew complement, buff strength, etc.--which imposes a cost penatly compared to FRA-exempt services such as light rail.   All of the other five systems (Sounder, CalTrain, MetroLink, Coaster, and FrontRunner) use locomotive-hauled coaches--commodity rolling stock which is available from many different manufacturers (and has an active used market as well).  WES?   It appears TriMet has cornered the market on FRA-compliant, diesel-powered, made-in-USA DMUs.  While locomotives (even small ones) get worse gas mileage than a DMU, if you're hauling hundreds of passengers per train, it doesn't matter.  The use of DMUs isn't unreasonable given projected volumes (and DMUs have the advantage of not needing to turn around)--but the low volume itself is a red flag--and the fact that TriMet was forced to buy its rolling stock from a single vendor (let alone spend millions to keep said vendor out of bankruptcy until the units could be delivered) ought to have been another red flag--what TriMet was doing wasn't novel; it was simply dumb.

The bottom line is--Beaverton to Wilsonville is not a viable corridor for a commuter rail line.  Portland to Salem, with stops along the way at places like Keizer, Woodburn, Canby/Wilsonville, etc.--sure, it probably would have worked (assuming suitable infrastructure and trackage rights).  But the I-5/217 corridr, if it needs any transit beyond local bus service, would be better served by LRT.  (Or BRT if you prefer).  It's a short, intra-urban line, not an inter-urban one--in short, not a good match for commuter rail.

TriMet may well have done the planning profession a valuable service, by providing a case study of What Not To Do. One hopes that the DoT and other DC bureaucracies in charging of giving the states their money back after suitable begging are paying attention, and will start snickering the next time some local politico proposes a similar project. 

That's three posts now I've done this week dragging WES through the mud--I'll leave the poor thing alone now for a while. 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sprawl and the Free Market

Lots of bloggers are all over this one, so why not join the party?

The always-annoying John Stossel goes on TV to peddle the notion that urban sprawl is the natural result of the free market--and that urbanism, on the other hand, is the result of evil librul meddling in the high holy marketplace.  Or somesuch.

And is promptly whacked at by two columnists from opposite sides of the political spectrum, The American Conservative's Austin Bramwell, and our good friend Yglesias

Of course, I would be remiss if it weren't pointed out that it just isn't the zoning codes and such encouraging sprawl--the banking and finance industry has long been reluctant to finance construction of anything but.  Wanna build a big box store with a parking lot the size of Texas?  No problem, here's your money.  Wanna build it downtown on a 200' x 200' city block, above a garage and next to a transit line?  Sorry, the big guy upstairs considers that investment too risky.

I would also be remiss in pointing out that our forms of infrastructure and (sub)urban design carry a lot of inertia--the presence of lots of sprawl means lots of cars, and where's the most convenient place to park your car?  More sprawl.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Is WES underpriced?

Over at Al's, commenter Erik H. (a TriMet user and frequent critic of the agency) makes an interesting point--WES may be underpriced.  A ride on WES from Wilsonville to Beaverton costs you $2.30 (less with a pass or a discount fare), and your ticket is a transfer good for the rest of the system.  Erik dug up the prices for similar length trips on other Western commuter railroads:

  • Sound Transit, from Seattle to Kent (~16 miles):  $3.50
  • CalTrain, from San Francisco to Burlingame (14.9 miles): $4.25
  • Metrolink, from LA to Norwalk (16.7 miles): $6.25 weekdays
  • Frontrunner (Utah Transit Authority), Salt Lake to Farmington (16.2 miles): $3-$5.
And in many of these cases, the commuter service is separate from local transit; your commuter rail ticket does NOT get you a ride on the local bus or train one you get off the commuter line.  Or vice versa.

Kudos to Erik for digging up these numbers:

It's also useful to compare longer rail trips--in the 30-50 mile range, in some of these metro areas.
  • A ride on Sound Transit from Seattle to Tacoma (30 miles) is $4.75, $4.50 from Seattle to Everett.  (The agency doesn't appear to run through trains between Everett and Tacoma).  (See here for details).
  • A four-zone pass on CalTrain, which will get you from SF to San Jose, is $7.75. 
  • A weekday ticket from LA to Irvine on Metrolink (about 42 miles) is $9.25
And... since Portland doesn't have any long-distance commuter rail to compare these fares to...


Part of the issue with WES, I think, is a bit of role confusion--is it commuter rail, or is it transit?  It tries to act like both; with a fare structure (and a corridor) appropriate for local mass transit, but the equipment and service more appropriate to commuter rail.  Likewise, a CalTrain like service, with CalTrain like prices (and without the long-haul amenities and cost structure of Amtrak) would probably be useful in Oregon.

Tri-Met reports ridership increase for February

A quickie... according to the Portland Tribune, Tri-Met is reporting increased ridership in February 2010 compared to the same month the previous year--the first year-over-year increase in over a year. Could be a statistical blip, could be the start of a trend, we'll have to wait until April (when March numbers come out) to know more. According to the Trib, MAX was the big gainer, with the Green Line drawing 19k trips daily on weekdays (and more on weekends), and many Fareless trips that were done on busses moving to MAX.

Al doesn't much like these figures, apparently... OTOH, I'm more concerned about total ridership, and am less interested in the bus-vs-rail split. (I'm certain that Al's thesis is correct--were MAX to be scrapped, quite a few who now ride it would return to the bus; quite a few others would hop in their cars. On the other hand, how important is this)?

Anways, here's hoping that this is a sign that the economy is turning around.. and that rather than having more service cuts, TriMet can return to frequent service that is really, you know, frequent.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Wes

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

It never is, of course--at least not when things go wrong. But for the past decade, Washington County officials--noting the success of MAX, had dreams of their own rail line whisking commuters and shoppers up and down the busy I-5/OR217 corridor. With no money available to expand the freeway (a project that would generate intense opposition in any case), and no money to build a MAX line--commuter rail seemed like a good idea. The old Oregon Electric right-of-way, while an active freight line, didn't get much traffic, was in relatively good shape, and passed through the cities of Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin, and Wilsonville--all important employment centers.

But today, the vision has come to fruition, and the dreams which were dreamed ten years ago have turned into nightmares. The Westside Express Service, or WES, for short, has been nothing but a disaster for TriMet. The project had numerous problems during its construction--from a failing rolling stock vendor, to exorbitant fees for parts of the right of way, to the straitjacket of FRA regulations more geared towards long-haul freight--and then the line opened up during the worst recession since at least the early 1980s, if not before. Today's story in the Oregonian goes into many of the dirty details, but some of the more salient bits:
  • $50 per vehicle hourtrain-mile to operate.
  • $20 cost per boarding ride (passengers pay an all-zone TriMet fare of $2.30 for a ride; assuming they don't have a pass).
  • Last month, 1260 passengers per day. That's about half of what an average bus line does--not the system, not the high-volume lines like the #33, but an average line.
Ouch. For those numbers, TriMet could almost--not quite, but almost--replace the service with a fleet of taxicabs, 3 passengers per. Except that as part of the federal funding agreement, the service needs to be in place for 20 years. Washington County, which pushed for the service, is currently contributing part of the funds, but at some point it will be TriMet's baby.

Even the optimistic service projections (which are now being called BS by some), only reach in the low thousands.

Right service, wrong place

When the line was being developed, it was widely touted as the only suburb-to-suburb commuter line in the United States. This was viewed as innovation. Perhaps it should have been a red flag--after all, there is ample evidence (with Wes now added to the exhibit folder) that such services don't work. Commuter lines, when they do work, connect major cities together, or major cities to distant exurbs. Sounder, up in the Seattle area, runs between Tacoma and Everett, a distance of 82 miles, stopping on average once every ten miles. Commuter rail between Portland and Salem (possibly including Vancouver in the mix) would probably be successful--Amtrak Cascades does a lot of commuter business despite a relatively infrequent schedule. But the distance covered by WES is too short; none of the cities involved is driver unfriendly (virtually all Washington County employers have ample free parking), and the connecting transit services are spotty in many cases. Plus, two stops (Hall/Nimbus and Wilsonville) are mainly useful as park-and-rides, and numerous important destinations along the corridor--Washington Square, Bridgeport Village, and Wilsonville Town Center--are quite a bit distant from the nearest stop.

What the corridor needs, is what planners concluded they couldn't afford--true mass transit (running on frequent headways, all day), not peak-hour commuter rail.

The Future?

The Metro High Capacity System plan has some interesting details in it. Of a handful of corridors examined, three were designated as "high priority" corridors, indicated in green on the map. One of them, the Barbur Boulevard corridor, is next in line (after Milwaukie MAX). Another, though, is the WES corridor--Beaverton to Wilsonville. Planners at Metro realize that mass transit is what is needed here.

However, the form of this future transit service is an open question--several notes in the planning document indicate that HCT in this corridor probably won't be LRT or anything else--but more WES, running all day. Which brings up some interesting questons:
  • How would the region pay to operate that?
  • The P&W railroad seems unwilling to expand WES service hours, as it interferes with their freight operations. Without a change of heart, an alternate ROW for freight, or a severe drop in P&W's shipping business, how would expanded service be accomodated?
  • At headways more frequent than 30 minutes, the significant number of single-tracked sections along the line becomes an issue.
  • 5 stops is probably adequate for commuter rail, but a rapid transit line generally benefits from stop spacings in the 3000-6000 feet range. Are stops going to be added?
At this point, no serious route planning has been done on the corridor (at least none that has been published); and it may be the case that the "expanded WES" claim is there to avoid any Federal objections concerning future cancellation of the service. But a replacement or expansion of service along the corridor, in whatever form, is probably a decade off--and in the meantime, WES trains will rumble along through Washington County every 3045 minutes. Weekday mornings and evenings, that is.

And somehow, tri-county taxpayers will be paying for it.

Happy birthday, Wes.

John Canzano vs Chip Kelly

Normally, I don't write much about the University of Oregon athletics, other than to root for their opponents, or to make fun of their mascot. After all, I'm an Oregon State alumnus and fan, so I tend to take a dim view of the nefarious goings-on in Eugene. However, over on the excellent blog Addicted to Quack, which covers the Ducks for the SBNation blog network, was a gem.
It's a transcript of a radio interview between Oregon head football coach Chip Kelly, and local sports columnist and talk-show-host John Canzano, on the subject of discipline issue on the Oregon football team.

I've never been much a fan of Canzano, who represents many of the baser trends of the sportarazzi. While he is a dogged reporter (perhaps his greatest coup was getting reformed pothead Damon Stoudamire to pee in a bottle back during the "Jail Blazer" years--Damon passed the test), he has a tendency to make his column about him; not about athletes or coaches or teams. He also wallows far too much in sloppy sentimentality for my taste, and his moralism evokes memories of Hedda Hopper (Canzano might take some fashion advice from her and get a hat). The Portland Mercury, never one to wince words, even went so far as to label his moralizing as "quais-racist" (this after Canzano encountered then-Blazer forward Darius Miles in a strip club and complained about it in his column--if it's so bad, what was Canzano doing there?)

OTOH, I'm not a fan of how the Oregon athletic department operates--like many aspiring football factories, far too much goes on beyond closed doors (and unlike most other programs, the Ducks are uniquely dependent on a single donor). The the LaGarrette Blount incident last year could have been done handled better--if the suspension was to be an indefinite one, rather than a permanent one, the team should have said so up front. (And if it were truly permanent, then he should have been kicked off the team).

Anyway, it was a fascinating interview--Kelly more than held his own against a trained media personality. Canzano came off looking like he wanted to shoot-first, ask-questions-later--he seems perpetually outraged that college students do stupid things, seems to think that wherever there is smoke there must be fire (and thus, the existence of an investigation is itself grounds for discipline). He openly suggested that the quality of talent, not the severity of the transgressions, guided discipline on Kelly's team--which Kelly vigorously denied. All in all, Canzano came off looking like a certain feminine hygiene product that rhymes with "swoosh".

On the other hand, Canzano caught Kelly off guard with an on-air claim that several people within the Ducks' football program had expressed (to him) a lack of confidence in Kelly's leadership--off the record, of course. Kelly seemed genuinely surprised, if not outright insulted, at the possibility of dissension in the ranks--given that one football player (Jamere Holland) who was kicked off the team had previously questioned Kelly on a Facebook page, Kelly's surpise is--well, surprising. (Kelly insisted that the dismissal of Holland was for reasons beyond the Facebook posting, but refused to elaborate).

Who "won"? Hard to say--much depends on the result of the investigations involving star players Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James. If they plead guilty (or are convicted) of the various charges against them, and Kelly drops the hammer--then Canzano will look bad. If, OTOH, they are held to account by law enforcement, but slapped on the wrist by the coach, than the bald guy will have a point. If the charges are dropped or the players are acquitted--that's where it gets interesting... and my guess is that's where this will likely end up.

Just another day in sports in Oregon....

Monday, March 8, 2010

The UGB hits middle age

One of the drawbacks of approaching 40 is an expanding gut. And as Oregon's land-use laws are of similar age, word comes of impending expansion around Portland's waistline.

The big news (not really news, as it wasn't unexpected) last week in Portland planning circles was the vote to expand the tri-county area's urban and rural reserves. In the 5-2 vote, the Metro Council voted to create the first urban and rural reserves. These reserves, new land designations which derive from a bill passed by the 2007 Oregon Legislature, are an attempt to clarify what land may be urbanized in the future, and what is excluded from potential urbanization. Land which is designated an urban reserve may be added to the UGB within the next 20 years; land which is designated as rural reserve will not be added for 50 years. 28,100 acres (44 square miles) have been designated as urban reserves, 272,100 acres (425 square miles) are now rural reserves. By comparison, the current urban growth boundary is 256,360 acres (400 square miles)--you all can do the math. A map of the additions (both urban and rural) is here.

This doesn't mean that all 28k acres WILL be added, of course--many tracts are highly controversial.

Prime Farmland

One of the stated goals of Oregon's land use laws are to protect prime agricultural lands. Agriculture generally requires large scale to function effectively--large contiguous tracts of fertile land under plow (or being grazed), along with the necessary infrastructure for farming. Many agricultural uses are incompatible with suburbia--people not involved in farming generally don't like to smell field burning, or fertilizer, or pig poop; listen to roosters crowing at dawn; or get stuck behind cattle drives or slow-moving tractors on the way to work. It's a generally accepted principle that once a farm is subdivided and turned into housing, its agricultural uses go to zero--even if some of the land could be recovered for farming, the necessary scale is disrupted, and there will be remaining neighbors who complain about the "new" operations. (People complain about noisy or smelly land uses that are pre-existing, after all...)

Several tracts designated "urban reserves", located in the Hillsboro/Cornelius area, are of this variety--in particular, a large tract located south of US 26 and east of Glencoe Road, and a smaller tract north of Cornelius. The Hillsboro tract is a logical extension of the existing industrial zone in Hillsboro. The Cornelius tract... is basically so Cornelius can expand its tax base. Or try to--the land in question may find it difficult to attract industrial users. (There's lots of existing industrial land within the UGB, but most of it seems to be considered undesirable by companies looking to set up shop. Plenty of industrial land in Oregon City, near the vicinity of Clackamas Community College, for instance--land which has been vacant for years).

Half-acre heaven

Two other large tracts which are now urban reserves are several tracts near Damascus and Boring; and the Stafford Basin. At first glance, these have little in common--one is a mixture of agricultural uses and pre-UGB housing developments; the other is known for its McMansions and swanky golf clubs. But both of these regions--along with much of the current city of Damascus, already within the UGB--have one thing in common: They're ultra-low-density sprawl, and they like it that way--residents of both areas want the gazillion new residents which the Portland metro area is expected to get--to pretty please, live somewhere else.

So far, both regions have managed to resist numerous attempts at densification. Damascus has been able to resist largely by incorporation, despite being on Metro's short list for expansion for some time now--a dirty secret of the whole regional planning process is that while Metro can limit a city's ability to expand its boundaries, especially beyond the UGB, it can't force a city to rezone if it doesn't wish to. As far as the Stafford Basin goes, the political and financial clout of the rich folk who live there have so far kept increased density out of the area--despite the fact that the basin is surrounded on three sides by urbanized areas, and I-205 passes through the middle of it. (That, and dysfunctional West Linn city government, largely caused by a political stalemate between pro- and anti- development interests).

The rest of the lot

Some areas make more sense. A big chunk of land west of Aloha (south of TV Highway and east of River Road) is already overrun with golf clubs and semiconductor plants, and is in close proximity to existing urban areas. Likewise with small tracts near PCC Rock Creek (which might see light rail in the future, if the high-capacity corridor plan is to be believed), and various chunks west of Murrayhill and on the western and southern slopes of Bull Mountain. (Memo to developers and planners--leave a ROW for light rail here if you start building...) Also, some parcels in Oregon City do make sense--although why the Newell Creek Canyon (a greenspace) is designated as urban reserve is beyond me.

Bottom line

There's a lot of land in the urban reserves that probably shouldn't be developed, but probably will be--and quite a few places that should be densified (due to existing residential use), but won't be. And there are few places where development may well be both welcome and useful. Of course, a key issue in determining the success of future development is what sort of development it is--more acres of exclusive-use residential are not what the region needs. And any expansion of the urban growth boundary itself ought to be contingent on actual demonstrated need, not projections.


Regarding, the city of Damascus--in a special election held yesterday in the city, four anti-growth measures (including on purporting to ban light rail, and severely restrict other forms of public transit), all went down to defeat, albeit by narrow margins. (Hat tip to Al...)

Friday, March 5, 2010

families and children on transit

The following originally appeared here on the excellent transit blog Human Transit, as a guest post. I'm reposting it here, minus the pictures. The post was also the subject to quite a bit of commentary on Streetsblog, here and here.

I'm a father of several small children, including twin boys (now four years old). Using public transit provides parents with several challenges not faced by childless passengers; and conversely, families with children provide transit authorities with challenges--and opportunities--that are unique. In a recent thread on, one poster, a dedicated urbanist with a bit of a temper, made it clear to myself and other parents that he considered kids--our "screaming brats" as he put it--unwelcome on transit.

The exchange got me thinking about the particular issues facing parents who use transit--whether by choice or due to economic necessity. This blog has covered a few family-related subjects, such as the issues faced in New York when schoolchildren take public transit rather than dedicated school buses and the situation is not managed well, but families and children haven't been dealt with in a systematic fashion here. In many cities, especially those without a strong transit culture (and the land-use patterns needed to make that a reality), having a larger family can be an obstacle to transit use--and in many places, it's assumed that having children invariably means a move to the suburbs. This is unfortunate, for several reasons, so this article examines several ways that a transit agency can help attract and keep families as customers--and why it is worth the effort.

In this post, I'll frequently refer to TriMet, our local transit agency--your own agency's policies may differ. TriMet is actually a reasonably-friendly transit system in several important ways--but as always, there is room for improvement

Riding the bus or train with children

Taking children along onto transit vehicles can prevent several difficulties, aside from the obvious hassle of herding the kids around in a crowded place. (Packing small kids in and out of a minivan also has its difficulties, believe me). The most obvious hassle is that depending on the transit system, traveling with children may require an extra fare be paid (or an extra pass be acquired). TriMet permits children under 7 to ride free with a paying adult passenger, and children under 18 (along with certain qualifying students 18 and older) travel at a reduced price (and may travel alone). TriMet has a few other family-friendly fare policies, which I will get into in a moment.

Family on busBeyond the potential added expense, there are numerous other practical difficulties involved with taking children on the bus or on the train. Older vehicles, especially the high-floor variety, often have difficulty accommodating strollers and such; even when they are accommodated, loading and unloading of strollers may require use of the wheelchair lift. Double-wide strollers, for those of us with twins, are especially difficult to take on board. And even if strollers aren't involved, safe travel with small kids generally requires that the kids sit; whereas grownups traveling alone can cram into a crush-loaded train, that isn't a sane option if you've got a preschooler with you. Which often means waiting for the next train...

...which brings us to the topic of service frequency. Waiting for the bus is unpleasant. Waiting for the bus with a tired toddler is far more so. While low service frequency is a barrier for anybody, its especially true for parents traveling with kids, for whom reading a book or playing with your iPhone isn't an option. When you're dealing with small children, low service frequency has one other drawback--small children have a tendency to throw tantrums, dirty their diapers, need to go to the restroom (now!)--and when this occurs, the proper course of action for the parent is to get off the bus or train, take care of the problem, and catch the next one. With frequent vehicles and stations with basic amenities, not a big deal. If the next bus is a half-hour later, and the only restroom is in a 7-11 near a bus stop in a bad neighborhood, it's a big deal and often a deal-breaker.

Land use issues

Jarrett often points out that land-use outcomes, more than transit planning, dictate transit outcomes--and this has a significant effect on the family-friendliness of transit--and the effect on working families. A recent report by the Center for Housing Policy found that for every dollar a working family saves on housing, it spends 77 cents on transportation, and a 2003 report from the Surface Transportation Policy Project found that working families spend 19.3 cents of every dollar on transportation.

In some cities, the transit friendly neighborhoods (the nice ones, anyway) tend to cater to a demographic that tends to be childless. Portland's Pearl District is an excellent example: it is well-served by transit, has lots of fine dining, shopping, art galleries, clubs, and other trappings of the "yuppie" lifestyle. It also has zero public schools, is full of tiny apartments, and has few businesses and other amenities which cater to children. (Portland Public Schools will reportedly open a school there in 2011). Some residents LIKE it that way, of course--but it's not a convenient place to raise kids. Suburbia, on the other hand, is VERY attractive to parents, with low-traffic cul-de-sacs, larger houses (often with yards), etc... but the things that make the suburbs attractive to families are devastating to good transit outcomes. Unfortunately, even in a relatively progressive city such as Portland, much new housing is suburban sprawl, not urban infill. It seems to be a pattern in many US cities, residential units large enough to be attractive to families typically are freestanding homes, not apartments, and are located in the suburbs. Larger dwelling units in the inner city are often scarce and expensive. And once you move to the suburbs, that minivan practically becomes essential.

One other relevant fact about having kids--you have a built-in carpool. In some ways, hauling the kids around in a car is arguably "less bad" for the environment than the driver-only trips that dominate commutes. On the other hand, in many cases, such trips involve either a) grownups transporting children to destinations (the kids are too young to travel by themselves) or b) grownups bringing children along on errands, in lieu of arranging for childcare--so the additional trips may not be useful in the sense that everyone in the car is being productively moved around.

The importance of families

Some may dismiss families with children as an unlikely (or undesirable) transit demographic, and propose that transit agencies instead focus on those demographics more likely to be transit-compatible, such as childless families and commuters. However, there are several problems with doing so.
  • Families who make the decision to move to the burbs are more likely to abandon transit altogether. A car will be a necessity--and then a second car will often become attractive. At that point, even the morning and evening commute for the family breadwinner(s) may be instead done by automobile.
  • Many trips made by families, especially daytime errands with smaller children, are made during off-peak hours--an important consideration for agencies trying to load-balance (which is pretty much every agency).
  • Children who grow up comfortable with transit are more likely to use it as adults; those who grow up in the suburbs--and whose main exposure to "transit" is an uncomfortable yellow school bus--are more likely to continue an auto-centric lifestyle when they grow up.
  • Families with children are an important political constituency as well. If they have no stake in good public transit, they are less likely to support it with their votes or their tax dollars.
  • Children who are of sufficient age to travel alone, but aren't old enough to drive a car, are a natural transit constituency.

What can agencies do?

How can transit agencies (and other governmental agencies) improve things for families (beyond the obvious thing of more frequent and more comprehensive service)?
  • Family-friendly fare structures. Permit small children to ride free or at reduced price. Sell family passes, entitling the entire household to travel on transit (together or separately). Consider lower prices for off-peak travel. (If congestion pricing is a good idea for motorists, why not for transit users as well?)
  • Make it easy to exit a bus or train (in order to take care of a child who needs a time-out or a restroom) and board a following vehicle, without any additional charge--including for cash fares. TriMet does well here--a single use ticket is actually a pass to use the system for up to two hours; so exiting and re-boarding on the same fare is not a problem. (Parents should be sure to obtain a transfer from the driver when boarding a bus; nothing special need be done for MAX light rail or the Streetcar).
  • Better transit marketing towards families--make it clear they are welcome and valued. Enforce the rules; make sure transit is not an uncomfortable place for parents. Keep the vehicles clean. Honolulu's TheBus system does well here, though the intense density of Hawaii's largest city doesn't hurt, either.
  • Transit-tracker and similar technologies are very helpful, especially on lines with low frequency. It's much more pleasant to wait for a bus with a child if you can DO something with the child besides sitting at a bus stop, and if nothing else, you have an answer to the inevitable repetition of "when is the bus coming, Daddy?"
  • Make sure drivers are aware of child-related issues, and have training to deal with things like lost or separated children. TriMet recently turned a potential negative incident into a positive one, after a child was left stranded on a MAX train when the door closed between the child and the parent. Fortunately, other passengers on the train noticed what happened, helped the child off at the next stop, and waited for the parent to catch the following train. The driver call button--which the parent had pressed--was not responded to; an investigation revealed that the call button was functional and simply ignored by the driver. To its credit, TriMet fired the driver. Many transit agencies are unwilling or unable to discipline drivers for acts of misconduct or negligence such as this.
  • Encourage development of dense, family-friendly housing and neighborhoods, and ensure that ample residential developments are located close to transit hubs.
  • Make more agreements with schools to provide transportation, where feasible. Like in New York, TriMet provides bus service for students attending Portland Public Schools--PPS does not operate yellow busses (at least not for general student transport). Unlike the New York City case, where transporting schoolchildren was an underfunded mandate, the school district pays the transit agency for the service (and probably saves both agencies a fair bit of money). And the school district has staggered bell times, so the load on TriMet is spread out a bit more.
What can parents do?

Of course, parents need to be responsible passengers as well. If your child is ill, keep him or her home (unless the trip is medically necessary). If the child starts to misbehave on the bus or train, take him off until he calms down (often times, being removed from a bus for bad behavior--or even the threat of doing so--will be sufficient to correct the problem). Don't permit children to disturb other passengers. Basic courtesy goes a long way. That said, trips on transit can be a positive experience for kids, especially when there's zoom and whoosh involved.

Families are an important demographic for transit, and one which is often ignored--or written off as too auto-dependent to bother with. But they can be valuable customers to have, for many reasons. Many of the policies which benefit families will also benefit commuters and other riders not traveling with children, improving the value of transit for all.

(edited to fix mangled link.)

More stuff coming...

It's been suggested by some that I ought to be blogging. It's easier to comment on other people's stuff, or to make snarky Facebook posts--writing your own blog articles (and doing it well) is a bit o' work. But I'll try.