Archive for U.S. Transit Systems

When it comes to the City of Angels, New Yorkers possess quite the superiority complex. Ours is a more vibrant, worldly, cultural and cosmopolitan city with a true downtown and less soul-crushing traffic than that other place on the West Coast. And forget the subways. Californians don’t even know Los Angeles has a subway!

OK, OK. Maybe that’s a bit too Center-of-the-Universe for our tastes, but still. The LA Metro, with its 350,000 daily riders, pales in comparison with New York’s century-old system. Now, with an ambitious expansion plan underway, more attention being paid to public transit in LA than ever before in the city’s history and a dedicated publicly-supported funding stream, East Coasters are left wondering if New York could learn a lesson from LA.

Earlier this week, Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York penned such a piece, and it’s worth the read for the thought-provoking aspect alone. “Of all big cities in the country, L.A. is making probably the most substantial public transportation investment,” Joshua Schank of the D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation said to Rubinstein. “In terms of an expansion, it’s unprecedented. What they’re doing out there is incredible.”

An excerpt:

What they’re doing is building, with money they raised themselves. In 2008, the same year New York’s congestion pricing scheme died in Albany, Los Angeles voters approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that over the next three decades is expected to garner $40 billion for transportation. It’s the third such transit-dedicated, voter-approved sales tax passed there since 1980. Those three taxes comprise the bulk of the agency’s funding. In April of 2011, that agency’s budget included money for, “about a dozen rail lines that are either under construction or being planned,” according to the L.A. Times.

New York’s M.T.A. is expanding, too, in some targeted ways, but it’s also chronically short of money and so lacking in political support that it’s near impossible to imagine New Yorkers willingly going to a voting booth to support it with new taxes. Joe Lhota, the authority’s relatively new chairman, regularly says as much, and has made improving the M.T.A.’s reputation and shoring up its political support one of his explicit goals.

Rubinstein also explores the why of it all. She is not kind to New York’s leadership:

For one, L.A.’s political leadership is arguably focused on transit in a way that New York’s politicians aren’t, really.

Andrew Cuomo seems to view public transportation more than anything as a potential liability to be mitigated, going back a while before he actually became governor; the legislature uses the M.T.A. alternately as a whipping post and a piggy bank; Michael Bloomberg has given up on proposing enlightened transit-funding schemes that go to Albany to die; Bloomberg’s would-be successors, so far, have focused on the easy stuff. “Bloomberg’s talked about congestion pricing and then it kind of fell off the radar when it died,” said Schank.

Related: L.A.’s transportation people invest relatively heavily in P.R. “Our metro does a great job with marketing,” said Lisa Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. “They have terrific advertisers and cute graphics and the whole shebang.”

From my casual eye, L.A.’s Metro has taken the failures of its East Coast compatriots to heart and has applied a few lessons to build a better organization that enjoys community support. In New York, the MTA is so entrenched in the minds of the public that it likely can’t overcome its image issues.

So has L.A. surpassed New York? They still have around 5 million daily passengers, 16 subway lines and nearly 40 stops to go. But with money flowing freely and construction progressing, perhaps the Great Freeway State can shed some of its car-centric image and teach us all a lesson about embracing transit construction in areas that sorely need it.

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When it comes to public-private partnerships, transit agencies and those in the private sector willing to participate have often struggled with their projects. We’ve seen some station rehabs succeed, some naming rights efforts falter and some private partners begin to understand why transit operators struggle with the finances.

In New York, one of the more problematic public-private partnerships has concerned the Atlantic Yards project. While more of a direct sale, Bruce Ratner’s obligations involved transit. In a nutshell, the MTA gave Ratner a sweetheart price for the air rights to the Vanderbilt Yards in Brooklyn with the original promise of a new nine-track train yard for $225 million. In 2009, the MTA agreed to a reduction in the size of the train yard. Ratner would have to build only a seven-track facility instead. A sweetheart deal had just gotten sweeter.

Now, we learn that despite a guaranteed delivery date of 2016, Ratner is facing delays in the construction of the train yard. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the delays are due to “higher-than-expected costs and a sluggish economy.” These same excuses have been percolating around the Vanderbilt Yards for years.

Brown had more:

Forest City spokesman Joseph DePlasco said the yard will still be completed on time. The developer has already built a portion of the yard, he said, and other related work will continue.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the developer has agreed to do $10 million of additional work in the interim, and the LIRR is using a temporary rail yard meanwhile. “From our perspective, very little is changing here,” Mr. Lisberg said…

Forest City had previously agreed with the MTA to get construction on the new yard fully underway by June 30. But in recent months, the developer sought to push off that date. They recently reached an agreement with the agency to push off that date until Dec. 31, 2013, the terms of which were disclosed to MTA board members this week.

I’m not quite prepared to draw too many sweeping generalizations here. The economy has indeed been sluggish, and the MTA can’t do any better with projects it oversees itself. For us to expect Ratner, who has been bleeding money for years, to do any better would be foolish. Still, this delay, which clearly risks the target completion date, is just another black eye for a project replete with them.

Meanwhile, in Boston, we learn of a public-private partnership done right. New Balance, the shoe giant, has pledged to fund a rail station in the Allston-Brighton area as part of a $500 million development plan in the area. The company will fund the $16 million commuter rail stop that will service its new headquarters, and this total includes “all permitting, design, construction and annual maintenance costs,” a Boston.com reporter said last week.

Here is a company that recognizes the need for a commuter rail stop and is willing to take the steps to see it through to reality. It’s possible then to form a public-private partnership that works, just like it’s possible to screw one up.

Categories : Brooklyn, MBTA
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One WMATA board member isn't sold on a Silver Line station stop at Dulles. (Image via The Transport Politic)

If New York had its druthers, public transportation to its airports would be more direct than it is today. Right now, existing transit connections serve to get air travelers almost to their destinations. Instead of direct service, the trip to Newark or JFK Airports involves a two-seat ride with an automated people-mover that delivers travelers from one train station to a terminal. Of course, a subway to JFK’s door would still involve travel from a train station to the terminal, but as London’s Piccadilly Line shows, it’s not an impossible way to travel.

Down in the Washington, D.C. area, the WMATA is finally rectifying a grave oversight of travel. They are amidst work on a multi-billion extension of the Metro that will finally, mercifully bring subway service to Dulles Airport. By New York standards, this so-called Silver Line seems downright cheap, mostly because it involves a good amount of at-grade construction. The final project will bring 23 miles of track and 11 new stations to the area for under $7 billion. Jealous yet?

Still, one Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board member isn’t satisfied. To save $70 million — or a little over 1 percent of the project’s total cost — Bob Brown proposed eliminating the Dulles stop, straightening out the alignment and constructing a people mover from the nearest station to the airport. “In my view this would be superior transportation service for our passengers,” Brown said.

Other WMATA board members were quick to shoot down the plan. “This is a creative idea,” Mame Reiley said, “but it’s not rail to Dulles. Fifteen years ago I might have been supportive, but I just don’t think that’s what we labored for is not to have rail to Dulles.”

That’s a rather singular vision put forward by Reiley. They’re not going to change their minds after 15 years of planning, and Greater Greater Washington issued a similar appeal. “Cutting so many corners that you don’t achieve your goal is not cost savings, it’s failure. Far from saving $70 million, by failing to provide Metro service to Dulles Airport Brown’s proposal would actually waste billions,” Dan Malouff wrote. He concluded: “The absolute minimum requirement for a Metro line to Dulles Airport must be that it actually reaches Dulles Airport. Period.”

I’m often skeptical of any argument that must be emphasized with a superfluous “period,” and another piece I read on the issue seemed to bare that out. Yonah Freemark ponders whether or not an airport line must actually service an airport. It may be perfectly acceptable and more beneficial for all riders if the airport line does what New York’s does. That is, if the train to the plane takes you to a people-mover that can better service airport terminals, everyone might come ahead.

After running some numbers, Freemark finds that total travel time from Route 28 — the station from which a Dulles people-mover would depart — to the airport isn’t significantly different if the WMATA goes with a station stop at Dulles or an airport connector. The difference, he notes, is in perceived convenience. It’s viewed as inconvenient for someone laden with bags and stressing to catch a flight to switch to yet another mode of transit. No one wants a two-seat ride; everyone craves a one-seat trip.

Ultimately, the people-mover proposal is a non-starter. It could streamline rides for folks traveling on the so-called Phase 2 of the Silver Line that connects parts north and west of the airport with the rest of the Metro system, but after years of fighting it out, the WMATA isn’t about to give up the airport station for an effort now called Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. It might just be worth it though for everyone involved.

Categories : WMATA
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In 1976, the first stations along the WMATA’s Red Line opened, and with it, came a new era of development and mobility for the Nation’s Capital. Today, Metro is expanding outward toward Dulles Airport, and talk of a purple line that would ring around the district, connecting Silver Spring, Bethesda and beyond, bubbles up now and again. But what would happen to the area of there was no mass transit network?

As it argues for better funding, that’s the question one WMATA transportation analyst has tried to answer. As Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities blog writes, a Capital without its subway system is a strange place indeed. Instead of a centralized downtown area, the region would be choked with traffic, thus leading to more localized economic development. “We looked at that and realized we were watching the economy splinter,” Justin Anthos, the author of the study said. “All of a sudden, we weren’t watching a regional economy function where workers could find jobs in the whole region.”

As 200,000 per day take the Metro into D.C., Antos’ research found that to maintain such commuting levels would require 15 new lanes of freeways and 166 blocks of five-story parking garages. The absurdity of it all, he says, is the point of the investigation. “Part of the study was to put in context the choices that our region faces in the future, which are that we can either continue to protect and expand our transit investment, or we can basically just keep it static, or even let it degrade,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘we chose not to expand.’ There’s some other alternative that you would be forced to live in. And we have to take a gander at what that alternative would be, so we can make informed decisions.” It is a lesson our fair city and its politicians should take to heart as well.

Categories : Asides, WMATA
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In a story familiar to New Yorkers, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is facing record ridership as it bottom link will soon lead to fare hikes and service cuts. As the Boston Globe reports today, October saw a record 1.35 million rides per average weekday across all MBTA subways, buses and commuter trains as the Massachusetts economy improves and gas prices remain high. Cuts, however, are on the horizon.

As the Globe notes, the MBTA is facing a $161 million operating deficit and is considering service cuts and fare hikes that would go into effect next summer. Amidst high ridership, Boston transit advocates are wary of the move. “I’m real concerned . . . because we could take what is obviously a very important and significant trend and pull the rug out from under it,” Richard A. Dimino, head of a group called A Better City, said. “The T is the workhorse for the Massachusetts economy.”

As with the MTA in New York City, the MBTA is carrying $6 billion in debt, and the deficit could lead lawmakers to eye new taxes for transit subsidies and a fare increase to “stave off significant service reductions.” It is, of course, the same old story: As costs increase and pressure to keep the fares low and affordable mounts, transit agencies slip into debt without state support. The only options are either higher taxes or higher fares. It’s not an ideal choice on either end.

Categories : Asides, MBTA
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Once upon a time in 2008, the MTA and its advertising partner Titan proposed GPS-based advertising for New York City buses. The idea was a simple one: By equipping buses with LED screens and GPS responders, Titan could feed location-based ads to buses around New York. In 2009, the authority even tested a few buses with these next-gen ads, but the idea has seemingly fallen by the wayside. Likely, the costs were too high to justify the technology.

Up in Boston, we receive word of a similar initiative with an auditory twist. The MBTA is thinking of selling location-specific audio ads on its buses. Ben Wolfrord from The Globe has more:

For the second time in four years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is considering selling audio ads on public transit as a way to drum up new revenue for the cash-strapped agency. A new pitch calls for targeted ads on buses that would be triggered by GPS technology. When the bus passes a particular business, an ad for that shop could play over the vehicle’s loudspeaker. If the audio advertising idea can generate money for the MBTA without irritating riders, officials said they will give it a try.

In 2007, the agency’s T- Radio, a program that mixed music and talk on T station platforms was short-lived. Hundreds of complaints poured in, and the MBTA killed the initiative after two weeks, before ads were aired. The MBTA is not yet sold on the latest idea, general manager Richard A. Davey said. “We’re going to take a look at it. We haven’t made a decision, but it’s something I’m interested in.’’

Before the end of the month, MBTA officials will hear a pitch from Ohio-based Commuter Advertising, which has launched similar advertising with several transit authorities, from Toledo, Ohio, to suburban Chicago, since its founding in 2008. “The company was founded by two transit riders,’’ said Russ Gottesman, cofounder of Commuter Advertising. For that reason, he said, they have the riders’ interests and their tolerance levels at heart. If the ads are profitable, Gottesman said, it could help prevent fare hikes.

According to The Globe, Commuter Advertising has figured out how to exploit audio ads that don’t annoy passengers. These ads would be short — only 29-39 words — and would play “when a bus drives past a business whose owner has purchased air times.” Only a few minutes per hour would be devoted to ads, and other cities — including Champaign, Illinois, have deployed these successfully.

As Boston debates this potentially revenue-generating projects, I wonder how New Yorkers would respond to such an auditory intrusion. Already, our daily rides are saturated with noise. Announcements than range from the unhelpful to the annoying bombard subway riders, and advertisements seem to be the next logical step. After all, the FIND displays have a space for video ads that the MTA doesn’t currently exploit; why not use the public address system to generate revenue?

For some reason, we seem to be more sensitive to paid advertisements than to run-of-the-mill announcements, but if these measures can drive revenue into the pockets of cash-starved transit agencies, why not? The MBTA thinks it can avert fare hikes if it can just find alternate sources of revenue, but that seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Still, if the choices are some audio ads or service cuts, I’ll take the ads every which way ’til Sunday.

Categories : MBTA, Subway Advertising
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Thirty five years ago, Washington DC’s Metro opened. It’s hard to believe the system is still so new, but basically, in New York terms, the Nation’s Capitol is where our system was in 1939. Of course, by the time 1939 had rolled around, New York had added on part of a Second System and had an ambitious plan for a huge expansion plan. Now it’s DC’s turn.

In an excellent piece for Greater Greater Washington, Matt Johnson highlighted a series of plans under discussion by WMATA planners that could be incorporated into a Metro Second System. These include a circumferential route, spurs off of the blue, yellow and red lines that would better cover Washington DC proper and a variety of better connections into the suburbs. Even if just some of these plans are realized over the next few decades, DC will be far better off for it.

While I’m giving Matt’s piece short shrift, I wanted to pose a discussion question: If New York could start all over again with its Second System plans, where should they build a subway in currently underserved areas? We talked earlier this week about a rail connection to LaGuardia, and the Utica Ave./South 4th St. line remains a great unrealized part of subway history. Would a Triboro RX circumferential line remain a priority? Better expansion past Jamaica in Queens? Crosstown connections from Upper Manhattan into the Bronx? New York hasn’t seen significant subway expansion since the 1930s, and I envy DC the opportunity to grow its system over the coming decades.

Categories : Asides, WMATA
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While folks within the MTA are working off of the B63 pilot to deliver real-time bus tracking to Staten Island (and eventually, the entire city), Philadelphia has, after ten years of work, finally flipped the switch on its on GPS-based real-time bus tracker. The project — called TransitView — follows 116 bus routes, 3 trackless trolley and 8 trolley lines, and the data is updated every three minutes throughout the day. The service also includes SMS notifications for bus arrivals. For more information, check out Technically Philly and the TransitView website. It’s certainly fun to poke around on the live map as well.

Ideally by the end of this year, Staten Islanders will enjoy this feature, and the rest of the city’s buses will follow suit as well. It should help revolutionize bus travel within the city too. As buses become less reliable and more prone to delays, ridership has dropped over the past two years. If riders know when the bus is coming, how far away it is and how long their rides should take, they can better plan their bus trips. It’s all about customer convenience in an age of technology.

Categories : Asides, SEPTA
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Lengthy station names can make a map tough to read. (Photo by flickr user Mieko Yamaguchi)

When I lived in DC way back in 2005, my nearest subway stop had, by any account, a ludicrous name. I lived a five- or six-minute walk away from the Woodley Park/Zoo-Adams Morgan station and always had a hard time coming to grips with its name. It was far longer than anything we have in New York, and it’s not particularly accurate. The Zoo is equidistant from the Cleveland Park station, and the walk from there is all downhill. Meanwhile, the red line services Adams Morgan in name only as that neighborhood is a good ten minutes away from the Metro stop.

This ungainly naming convention wasn’t unique to my station. The U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo stop leads the system, and others such as Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter or Mt Vernon Sq 7th St-Convention Center try to cram in as much as they can in 19 characters. It certainly makes “23rd Street” on the West Side IRT seem runty in comparison, and if our worst station name is Sutphin Boulevard/Archer Ave./JFK Airport, we’re probably doing OK.

Over the years, those concerned with the usability of the Metro have raised the issue now and then. Back in 2009, Dan Malouff on Greater Greater Washington called for an overhaul of WMATA names. “Do we really need to know,” he asked, “that students attending George Mason University sometimes use the Vienna station? GMU’s campus is over 5 miles from Vienna. The station does not directly serve the university. The name doesn’t have to be there.”

Now, the WMATA is gearing up to redesign the map, and I have to wonder if they should take a gander at station names as well. The impetus behind the redesigned map is a simple one: With new routes coming online over the next few days, the WMATA has to better represent its service patterns. Here’s how Dr. Gridlock explained it in March:

To plan for the proposed split in the Blue Line and the later addition of the Dulles rail extension, Metro is studying how people pick up visual clues about which train to take. Barbara Richardson, Metro’s assistant general manager for customer service, communication and marketing, announced last Thursday that the transit authority also is bringing back its original mapmaker, Lance Wyman, to revise the well-known map.

How often do riders use the map, and what do they use it for? On the trains, there are big maps at the ends of the cars and smaller ones near the center doors. In a crowded car, some riders will stand on tiptoes and peer at it. Others need to get real close and study the text. Most commuters are taking the same trip every day, and they ignore it, unless a tourist asks for directions. There’s likely to be a lot of map-gazing during the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival.

Meanwhile, Greater Greater Washington has been hosting a contest this spring. They asked readers and cartographers to redesign the map, and a panel of judges selected the best. Readers have now been asked to vote on their favorites. The new maps had to show upcoming system expansions — an idea my readers have proposed for New York’s map — and must delineate between off-peak and peak service offerings, a key description now missing from our map.

For now, those in DC aren’t concerned with the station names, but they have recognized in the past that it makes maps particularly tough to design. With lengthy station names, squeezing in that much typography leads to areas of the map that are tough to read and station names that do not adequately pinpoint their location.

Should transit authorities label their maps based on the station location or the areas and neighborhoods within walking distance from that station? That seems to be the question with which DC must grapple, and the WMATA is leaning toward a new philosophy: The shorter, the better, says Barbara Richardson, the agency’s customer service officer. A map that’s easier to read may trump information overload. After all, it’s not too hard to tell someone to get off at Woodley Park to get to Adams Morgan. The station name needn’t be so inclusive and spare words may soon be getting the axe.

Categories : WMATA
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The MTA has frequently come under fire for its real estate holdings. Politicians and advocates believe that the authority doesn’t make proper use of the space it both rents and owns, and underground, commercial opportunities are decidedly low rent. It is a problem the MTA is trying to solve in order to generate more money.

A few weeks ago, news broke that the authority may try to offload some real estate holdings as part of the overall overhaul of the way the MTA works. Meanwhile, back in November, MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder spoke to me about the need to find a more diverse and appealing group of businesses willing to take out space underground. It’s a process.

In Chicago, the CTA is engaged in a similar process, and the Windy City’s Tribune profiled that authority’s real estate overhaul. Jon Hilkevitch reports:

The Chicago Transit Authority, which has its hands full running trains and buses, concedes it has no business managing the retail concessions on its properties. Sixty-six of the 137 concession spaces at CTA rail stations are vacant, according to the transit agency. Commuters aren’t exactly missing their trains to buy the snacks and refreshments available at the open concession stands either.

The grimy appearance of CTA subway tunnels extends up the escalators to many of the vendor stalls, which haven’t been overhauled in decades. A campaign is beginning to upgrade the selection of offerings to commuters and boost CTA rental income by attracting new retail tenants, including national chains that would operate rail station stores in multiple CTA stations, officials said…

Commuters may soon be able to drop off their dry cleaning, conduct other business or just buy a cup of coffee right inside or next door to their “L” stop. The two newest leases are with Maui Wowi Hawaiian, a coffee and smoothie shop that will open at the CTA Belmont station serving the Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express lines; and Lupito’s juice bar at the Damen station on the Pink Line, officials said. Both businesses are scheduled to open this spring.

Upscale merchandise could become part of the mix too. Vending machines that feature iPods and digital cameras are deployed at increasing numbers of airports, and they may turn up at CTA rail stations as well. The CTA is considering vending machines that dispense DVDs and electronics at select rail stations, CTA President Richard Rodriguez has said.

There’s more than a little amount of common sense involved in the CTA’s thinking. While many of their stations have a more visible ground-level component than New York’s do, the simple idea of placing vending machines in stations could be one that tips. Why shouldn’t I be able to grab a DVD from a Redbox machine at Grand Army Plaza? If the MTA can maintain its MetroCard Vending Machines and if my local Key Food can keep in better working order than its credit card readers, convenience would demand one in the subway.

Of course, the idea that the subway is for anything other than commuting is tough sell. Other than concession stands, businesses aren’t drawn to the subways because of its negative connotations. It’s dirty; it’s dark; it’s delayed. I prefer my dry cleaners to inhabit a clean building with some modicum of proper venting instead of the dirt- and rat-infested subway system.

Still, money is tight. Transit agencies have to get creative with their rent-seeking efforts, and perhaps Chicago is on to something. As New York searches for a similar solution, they could do far worse than to take a cue from our neighbors to the west.

Categories : CTA
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