Highways and Rapid Transit: Should They Go Together?

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’ve got a something of a debate going on the subject of putting new transit routes alongside highways in American cities.

Last Friday, Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic
noted the opening of Portland’s Green Line with a post titled
"Portland’s New Rail Line Is Welcome News, but It’s Not Routed as It
Should Be." The line’s location on the highway right-of-way, argues
Freemark, will discourage transit-oriented development:

The highway makes an ideal right-of-way for the purpose of increasing
speeds and reducing interference with surrounding neighborhoods, but it
is the worst when it comes to spurring transit-oriented development.
TOD, after all, should be the primary land use goal of any new public
transportation investment, and Portland is likely to get very little of
it along the Green Line. That’s because the mere presence of I-205,
with its traffic, noise, and pollution, will make development adjacent
to it unappealing. Worse, because the transit corridor will be located
on one the side of the freeway, people will have to cross the very wide
road to get to the other side.

6a00d83454714d69e20120a56823e7970b_320wi.jpgTransit and freeways side by side in the upscale Charlottenberg neighborhood of Berlin.

But that’s not how Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit
sees it. Walker pulls out some pictures from a recent trip to Berlin to
make his point. There, he notes, thriving upscale neighborhoods like
Charlottenberg can be found on precisely this type of transit/freeway
corridor:

When a New World city builds a rail line alongside a freeway, or
even in its median, nobody expects the result to look like Berlin any
time soon.  But it’s not obvious that these can’t be dense
transit-oriented districts in their own style a few decades from now,
if that’s what local government wants.  Yes, it’s always better to have
the transit stop right inside the dense commercial core of a
neighborhood.  But if we make that an absolute requirement in our
thinking, we end up having to choose between either

  1. underground lines in places where we can’t afford undergrounding, or
  2. elevated lines in places where community impacts just won’t allow it or
  3. lines at grade on arterial streets, even if in exclusive lanes,
    that can’t deliver a reasonable travel time given the long regional
    trips the line is intended to serve. 

And
on most of the American rapid transit projects that I’ve been close to
over the last two decades, any of those outcomes would have killed the
project.

The Overhead Wire takes up the topic in a post called "When Road Engineers Do LRT":

I don’t disagree with folks like Jarrett

when they say that rapid transit has its best opportunities to run fast
in the freeway. But at the same time, there are similar opportunities
to leave the freeway ROW when it comes time to have a station and
connect the places that people ultimately want to go, and the parcels
that should be redeveloped into walkable districts.

I believe a
perfect example of this is the Denver Tech Center. When they designed
the T Rex project, why didn’t they go forward with the option that
would have allowed direct access to the center of the employment
district? I imagine it was perceived cost compared to running time. It
didn’t matter that its where people wanted to go, when the train was
moving it was running fast, so stopping on the other side of the
freeway was a better option for the ridership modelers and the
engineers designing the road.

And one more post on transit routing from the blog Say Yes to the Honolulu Rail System, which is written by a communications consultant to the City of Honolulu on their proposed rail line. He objects to a new proposal
that would not be fully elevated and — it seems to me on first
inspection — would run closer to some downtown destinations by
diverging from the freeway right-of-way. Anyone know more about the
relative merits of these proposals?

  • The Honolulu rail issue is quite controversial. For one thing, Hawaii has financial problems and building a system like this there is expensive. Secondly, it is not being properly promoted by the Mayor and is coming off as shady to many, especially because he is not open to alternative ideas in tech or routes.

    The new proposal with a portion at-grade will reach more into the core of the current downtown area, but the distance between the original and new routes are not that far from each other. What the new one would do, however, is save money, take away the issue about having an elevated rail track in downtown that would separate the buildings from the water, and would bring it to a more respectful street-level in front of the historic Iolani Palace (old capitol). This comes at the expense of speed and interference with car traffic, though.

    A problem with Honolulu rail in general is that the lifestyle of residents is a driving one. To add to that, current and future developments are being done in a spread out/suburban fashion which promotes car use, rather than rail. Many don’t want to drive to the station to park their cars, ride the rail only to have to walk or catch the bus on the other end. If the city truly wants to make rail usable, they need to promote transit-oriented development. Much of West Oahu is a clean slate, yet they are choosing to create suburbs instead.

  • Thanks, Beebler. That’s really helpful. It was clear to me from just the little research that I was able to do that this is an incredibly complex issue — and the reality is that Hawaii gets precious little attention from the mainland/mainstream media.

    We’ll dig deeper and keep an eye on this story.

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