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?

  • BikingViking

    What’s interesting about this is that many of the downtowns in the US’s smaller cities have been bisected by these interstate right of ways already. So when you examine places like Worcester MA; I 290 which ripped the city apart, would make a good rail right of way to potentially put a city back together.

    Also since most of the interstates continue out into the heart of suburbs, and often directly to the exurban malls, High density TOD becomes possible on large commercial lots (the constant redevelopment of malls mean they could easily become mixed use).

    I think people who see an issue with Interstate highways as mass transit right of ways are only considering the bigger cities in the US. It’s not a one size fit’s all solution, but it’s a great solution for some.

  • Lucy

    The best transit route is the one that can get built. Insisting on perfection prevents action.

  • This is what happens when you try to plan on a tilted playing field. Instead of trying to work with the auto, we need to stop subsidizing it and as it gradually unwinds, gradually create the replacements as locations change to match the new society. Forcing rail into an auto-dominated society is a losing proposition and opponents will rightly point out that it doesn’t work. You have spent all you political capital for nothing.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

STREETSBLOG USA

Planning a Streetcar? Better Get Your Zoning Right

|
Streetcars aren’t necessarily the fastest or cheapest way to get people from point A to point B, compared to, say, light rail or additional bus service. But cities around the country are racing to install new lines because streetcars can be a powerful tool for promoting urban development, of the walkable, transit-oriented, mixed-use, high-tax-revenue generating kind. But there’s […]
STREETSBLOG USA

Transit Speed and Urbanism: It’s Complicated

|
There’s been a rollicking online debate the past week on the subject of “slow transit.” Matt Yglesias at Vox and Yonah Freemark at Transport Politic noted the downsides of two transit projects — the DC streetcar and the Twin Cities’ Green Line, respectively — arguing that they run too slowly to deserve transit advocates’ unqualified […]
STREETSBLOG USA

3 Bright Prospects for a Better Transportation Bill

|
Yesterday we reported on some of the terrible amendments that might get tacked on to the House transportation bill this week. But there are also some good ideas with bipartisan support among the hundreds of amendments submitted by members of the House. Here are three amendments that have the potential to improve transportation policy in the U.S. — should legislators give […]
STREETSBLOG USA

Happy 35th Birthday, D.C. Metro

|
Highlights from the Streetsblog Network today: commentary on how transit investment and demographic change are shaping cities. D.C.’s Metro as a Case Study in Urban Redevelopment: Happy Birthday, D.C. Metro! Washington’s transit system turns 35 this week. Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic takes the opportunity to examine the system’s effect on urban development patterns. […]