Thursday, December 16, 2010

Getting Back On Track

Yesterday we got some interesting information from Smart Growth America (SGA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) about how each the fifty states is preparing for "smart growth" and greenhouse gas reduction.

Before opening it, my very first question was, How badly did Michigan do? The answer - when I finally found it - was, Better than I thought!

The report, titled "Getting Back On Track: Aligning State Transportation Policy with Climate Change Goals," used lots of publicly available data sources to rate each state in several categories. One key point is that transportation decisions are made mainly at the state level. The Federal government can offer incentives and cash, but the states have the final say as to what they're going to do. Several good examples came up in the last few of months, as governors and governors-elect of New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin threatened or vetoed federal transportation funding because it was tied to rail projects which, for whatever reason, were considered a waste of funds. Even powerful, local governments are stopped by their states, as in the case of New York City's 2007 congestion mitigation plan which the state legislature killed simply by blocking it from coming to a floor vote.

"Getting Back On Track" looks at three main types of criteria: Infrastructure Policies, Transportation Investment Decisions, and Touchstone Policies. The last refers to general state policies that impact - directly or indirectly - the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources. A point score in each category, based on multiple indicators, gives a sort of "percentage grade" for each state. States were then ranked in each category to see how they compare. Here's how Michigan scored in each category:

  Infrastructure Policy Transportation Investment Decisions Touchstone Policies
Michigan's Rank 26 9 17
Michigan's Score 36% 51% 5 of 15 points

Our infrastructure policy seems to rank about average, but we ranked better in "touchstone" policies, and pretty well in actual investment decisions. That's good if we're being graded "on the curve". If you look at our actual scores, we're flunking in all categories. I don't suppose the laws of physics "grade on the curve", so when greenhouse gas emissions take effect in the environment, it's the score that counts - not the rank.

The scores from each category were combined to calculate an overall score for each state. Here are a few states that might be of interest to us in Michigan:

State Rank Score Notes
California tops the list. Interesting that the state which began the "freeway life style" is also the first to react to its limitations.
Best in the Midwest
Second among near neighbors
Third in the Midwest
Fourth in the Midwest
Surprisingly low given its relatively high population and industrial base
Last in the Midwest, but it ranks with other states whose population density is low
Arkansas may be HQ for the tops among the world's retailers, but it's dead last in green transportation.

The top states on the list are all coastal states with large, densely-populated areas: California, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The states at the bottom are all rural, low-density areas: Montana (41st on the list), followed by Alabama, South Dakota, Wyoming, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, West Virginia, Mississippi, and of course Arkansas in last place.

One way to look at this distribution is to speculate that high-ranking states have congestion problems that can't be ignored - but also, they have more abundant resources to deal with their whatever problems. So why is New York number 21? On the other hand, states at the bottom of the list have scantier resources to solve whatever problems they do have. Alabama, Indiana, and Nebraska each has at least one large metropolitan area which undoubtedly suffers from some degree of congestion and pollution.

Michigan falls somewhere in the middle, and of course we have our unique issues. We have areas of density, but there is a sense that we lack the economic resources to deal with the congestion and pollution. Then there's the fact that Michigan - and especially Detroit, its densest and most congested area - is losing population. Some people have the attitude that if we just wait long enough, Detroit will go away. That's a non-starter, for sure!

What next?

Because states have such an important role in setting transportation policy and practice, I'm going to pass along the study's recommendations for state action. Which of these are we already doing well in Michigan...and which can we do better?

  • Balance state transportation investments by:
    • using state and federal resources to support robust public transportation service
    • prioritize highway repair and safety over new capacity
    • support non-motorized transportation, and
    • ensure state fuel taxes can support all transportation modes.
  • Manage traffic through congestion pricing tools and incentivize low-carbon transportation options through comprehensive commuter programs.
  • Link transportation and land use in transportation plans, implement smart growth and growth management policies, and promote transit oriented development.
  • Set a course to reduce emissions by setting per capita transportation greenhouse gas or vehicle-miles traveled reduction targets.

What do you think? Which areas do we need to improve on, and how?

Get the full report here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's About Diversity

Everyone in Michigan's transit community was tickled by the October 20 announcement of $150M for Wolverine rail corridor improvement under TIGER II, part of ARRA. This amount - trivial by highway standards - is truly significant for rail.

Congressman John Dingell was given the honor of announcing the grant, and I'm sure it's as significant for him as for us. But let it be noted that these funds were awarded based on US DOT's merit-based formula, not on earmarks from the Congressman. I'm proud that Michigan earned the money fair and square, rather than by whining to our legislators.

As a competitive program, TIGER II is able to fund the best projects from around the country. Using merit-based evaluation criteria allows the Department of Transportation to address some of the nation’s most critical challenges like sustainability and economic competitiveness. (

BTW - there was lot of negative campaign noise about Dingell 's age and long service in Congress. In the words of one blog comment/flame, "He’s a washed up old geezer…. Move on old dude and let some new blood and new ideas into office". I find it interesting that a congressman who was in office when the Interstate highway system was legislated (and I have to believe he supported it!) is now such a staunch advocate of high(er) speed rail. I wonder what "new ideas" our flaming friend was thinking of (if any)?

Many negative commentators seem to fear that transit investment will "take away" our cars. Of course, no transit advocate has ever suggested that seriously. But the critics seem quite happy to keep others from having further options. As one commenter jokingly put it, "We don’t need a railway. Rich people have cars and poor people can just walk."

It's a well-accepted maxim that there's strength in diversity. Michigan's economic woes stem in large part from lack of diversity. Over-reliance on manufacturing (primarily of automobiles) brought Michigan down further and faster in this recession than most other states.

It's the same in transportation. Cities with high-capacity electric rail don't quake in fear of OPEC as much as cities that depend on oil for mobility. They have a backup system. Families with transportation options over and above the automobile can spend their money on more diverse things. They have a backup system. We're still seeing a savings of about $9000/year for families that can use transit rather than owning and operating a second auto.

Transit makes it possible for a more diverse group of people to live in an area - including senior citizens and mobility-challenged folks, as well as immigrants from countries that don't depend on privately owned vehicles for mobility. Remember, Michigan Future found that the nation's most successful metropolitan regions are all more welcoming to diverse populations, including immigrants, than is Michigan.

Diversity and mobility options are hardly new ideas, but they have a powerful, positive effect on society. I appreciate John Dingell's support of those ideas, whether they're new or old. I'm glad he will be back in Washington come January.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Election Results: Where We Stand

After Tuesday's midterm elections, a lot has changed. For those of us watching transportation policy and sustainable development, the results offer a mixed bag of good and bad news. Let's start at home and work our way up...

Local: Washtenaw County

The Ypsilanti City transit tax initiative was approved. According to the national Center for Transportation Excellence,

City of Ypsilanti voters were asked to approve a charter amendment to levy an additional 0.9789 mills specifically for public transit, restoring the original 20 mills that had been reduced. With the amendment in place, Ypsilanti would secure an additional $281,429 in revenue in 2011 for bus transportation through the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

The measure passed by a very comfortable 72%, indicating that even in hard times, Ypsilanti residents consider public transportation a high priority.

Ypsi residents often come to City Council meetings and protest cuts to AATA service, but being willing to pay for it is often another matter. Good job, Ypsi, for putting your money where your mouth is. Now, how about Ypsi Township...?

State Representative-Elect David Rutledge took an Internet class from me many years ago, before serving as Trustee at Washtenaw Community College. I found him to be thoughtful, curious, quick-witted, and eager to learn. Though I've disagreed with him over the proposed WCC parking structure (Blog: December 8, 2009) I'm very positive about his ability to bring about effective policy in Lansing.

State: Michigan

Governor-Elect Rick Snyder appears to understand the need for mass transit and the benefits it can bring - including attracting talented young people to our state and providing a life-line for people who don't have access to automobiles for one reason or another. His results-oriented investment budgeting philosophy is encouraging, since in state after state, investment in rail transit has brought spectacular dividends. I recommend the on-line video interview by the Detroit Free Press in which Snyder talks about Lansing's culture, his budgeting strategy, and specifically about transportation (at 4:20 in the 5:50 minute video).

Michigan citizens across the state voted overwhelmingly for improved transit options. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, five transportation-related property tax issues were on local November 2 ballots around the state. Only in Eaton County did an issue fail. I mentioned Ypsilanti's victory for transportation ; in addition, there were victories in Bennington Township (by 66%), Caro (by 62%), and Spring Lake (by 80%). Looking back to the election of August 3, 2010, a lot of property tax mileages for transit were passed or renewed in Michigan: Bay County (64%), Branch County (70%), Clare County (61%) Genesee County (63%), Ingham County (67% and 63% on two issues), Lapeer County (67%), Ludington and Scottsville (figures not available), Saginaw (65%), Shiawassee County (figures not available), St. Joseph County (61%), Van Buren (68%), Wexford County (61%), and the SMART renewal in the counties of Wayne (74%), Oakland (78%), and Macomb (72%). Not a single issue got less than 60% support, except a failed proposal in Eaton County (lost by 45% in August).

And look who gave the highest percentage approval for transit in August: arch-conservative Oakland County, with 78%! Who says good transit is just a liberal issue?

Regional: the Midwest

The Big Bad News in the Midwest is two governors-elect, those of Ohio and Wisconsin, vowing to kill their state's high speed rail projects. This is especially disappointing for Wisconsin, which had contracted with Spanish railroad equipment builder Talgo to construct trainsets in a disused Milwaukee-area factory. For a governor to kill a project that was providing jobs is unusual. Wisconsin's high speed line was to run from Chicago through Milwaukee to Madison. The governor's reason for killing the project was its ongoing cost to the state (apparently ignorant of the ongoing economic benefits of passenger rail). He would rather put the money into the state's "crumbling roads and bridges".

Ohio's governor-elect apparently opposes rail for the same reason. Their brand-new passenger service would run from Cleveland through Columbus and Dayton to Cincinnati. In both Ohio and Wisconsin, supporters of rail haven't given up on legal remedies, though they admit their situation is grave.

On the positive side, Illinois continues to be solidly rail-supportive. As the rail hub of the Midwest, we need Illinois's continuing support.


Nationwide, the Center for Transportation Excellence tells us, "On November 2, voters approved 23 of 31 transportation ballot measures for a 74% sucess rate. When added to the 21 out of 26 measures approved earlier in the year, voter support for transportation ballot measures remains strong with 77% approved in 2010. This is well above the 10-year average of 70%."

According to Transportation for America (T4A, of which Wake Up Washtenaw is a partner) the general outlook for transportation reform is not bad at the Federal level. Although fiscal conservatives will be in charge of the House, and the Minority Leader of the Senate has vowed not to compromise, many of the new leaders understand the value of transportation diversity in general, and rail in particular. John Mica (R-FL) will chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, replacing James Oberstar. Although Mica has strongly criticized Amtrak in the past, he is a supporter of rail, of walking, and of biking. (You don't have to dislike rail to be a critic of Amtrak...)

As you probably know, the Surface Transportation Authorization Act (STAA) was introduced, but tabled during the last Congress, and the previous legislation extended. Congress will have to address transportation early in its new session. T4A expects that, compared to what the bill looked like when it was introduced during the 111th Congress, this will be:

  • Smaller
  • Involve more creative financing;
  • Have fewer programs;
  • Encourage quicker starts by reducing the environmental review process;
  • Focus on repair, maintenance, and safety;
  • Support performance measures; and
  • Encourage "smarter" transportation investments.

Though we can't expect the level of investment we saw during the last Congress, we can expect a shift that will encourage transportation diversity. Could be worse for transportation reform. Could be a lot worse.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

When Transit Oriented Development Disappoints

Rail~Volution 2010 was great. I'm very thankful to have been able to go to Portland this year. We expect great transit in large cities like Boston (which hosted Rail~Volution last year), but it's more refreshing to see a mid-size metro area that has invested in transit for that last 25 years.

There are so many great lessons to be learned when a thousand transit-oriented development folks gather in one place. What I'd like to focus on is when TOD doesn't work, or when it looks different from what we might expect or prefer.

The highlights of the week for me were the two field trips to TOD sites. The first was east to Gresham, the second west to Beaverton and Hillsboro.

East Side

In 1986, Gresham was a working-class town that became the eastern terminus of Portland's first light rail service, the Blue Line. It's still a working-class town with very little "gentrification" evident. Transit-oriented development appears confined to a few new buildings near stations, and a shopping center.

The TOD does follow the new urbanist principles of mixed use, residential over commercial. In the shopping center, the parking will eventually be located underground or beneath commercial-residential buildings. Otherwise, there's little to distinguish it from other recent developments. Well, perhaps the fact that it's recent development is a distinguishing feature in itself, since very little development has taken place recently.

Most of the eastern Blue Line runs in the middle of a wide boulevard. It wasn't a boulevard until the light rail was built, though - and lots of engineering work had to be done to mitigate the widening and leveling of the original two-lane roadway. The cost of building the line included re-doing hundreds of driveways, lawns, fences, and retaining walls. And though the neighborhoods don't look well-to-do, they certainly don't look run-down or impoverished except in one or two old warehouse districts where the loft/office refurbishing trend hasn't quite taken off.

A couple of things were disappointing. One was the new county office building whose front is turned away from the Gresham Central Transit Center, as if to ignore its presence. Another is the new station at Civic Drive being built within 30 yards of a new mixed-use development, with no architectural connection to it. In many parts of the world, developers and mall owners are eager to attach their space as closely as possible to rail stations. In most Japanese cities and towns, the railway station is the central shopping center, crowded not only with travelers and commuters, but with shoppers. There seems no physical reason why electric rail vehicles can't run through the middle of a shopping center here in the US, too. Federal transit legislation for years has encouraged public-private partnership in the construction of transit stations. So why aren't we doing it? In this case, the answer was, "Hmmm, well, we had this Federal grant to built the station, so we just did it." It has a (very nice) outdoor platform covered with a (very nice) glass roof, but is basically an outdoor space. What a shame the concept of integrating transportation and shopping just isn't part of most planners' thinking here in the US.

So on Portland's east side, light rail appears to provide a foundation to keep property values steady without overly inflating them. TOD has been modestly successful, and there is likely to be more as the economy recovers.

West Side

Beaverton and Hillsboro are in the opposite direction from Gresham on the Blue Line, both geographically and socially. Where Gresham is mainly working class, the west side is predominantly middle class and high-tech. In fact, Beaverton and Hillsboro were small towns up through the 1960s. Change came in the late 1960s when the Sunset Highway became a freeway, built to speed access to downtown Portland across the Tualatin Mountains from the west. Light rail didn't arrive until 1998, because it required a 3.1-mile tunnel bored through the mountains. But both towns have been sites of high-tech industry since the 1960s, starting with instrument-maker Tectronix in Beaverton, followed by Intel, which now operates four large campuses for research, development, and chip fabrication in the Hillsboro area. If there is a place where TOD should work, this is it.

Has it? Yes, and no.

The Beaverton Round is such an exciting project, and such a disappointing failure. Conceived by visionary developers Selwyn Bingham and Sylvia Cleaver, it was to include condos, shopping, and office space built, literally, around the light rail station and a park. What could have gone wrong?

For one thing, construction problems. The site is apparently over a disused sewage treatment plant, with all the remediation and uncertainty such a place can bring. Then there was use of shoddy materials and construction techniques, resulting in multiple law suits and requiring expensive replacement of windows and facing. (The sad details are here if you really want to know.) Continually plagued with financing problems, only part of the planned development has been built, and even less occupied.

Orenco Station's development fared much better. Longer in the planning, it involved more community input and balanced practicality with idealism. No compromise was made in new urbanist principles. The big disappointment to me is the location of the town's center: at a busy intersection, not at the rail station. In fact, it's a good quarter mile through (currently) empty space from station to center. Traffic in the center is heavy, and our group was warned that when the walk-light came on, we must hurry across the road because it was a short light. I hate to see a town center where pedestrians are chivvied and it's too noisy to hold a conversation. But as the developer pointed out, they couldn't have made it work without the traffic passing by to lure customers to the town's businesses.

And centering the town on the highway has worked financially. Businesses have leased most of the available space, and residents have bought most of the available housing. Once away from the highway, the open spaces and built environment are very inviting and peaceful.

This is a well-studied project, and one finding from the developer's study was what most attracted people to this TOD. No, it wasn't the transit (shucks!). Transit was seen as a good amenity, but what really drew people was the architecture and design.

Pac Trust, the developer, went in with little if any experience building residential communities - they had specialized in commercial and industrial. Not knowing what buyers would prefer, they had a number of styles illustrated by photos and drawings, and showed them to people. What folks kept saying "Wow" about was a design based on Boston's classic townhouses, so that's what they built for the town center. Free-standing houses are built in an English cottage style, with lots of quaint detailing. And it sold beautifully (though of course it doesn't hurt to be surrounded by large Intel facilities). What about shopping? Yes, there is a Starbucks on the main corner ;-) and one of the best Indian restaurants in the Portland area (Intel influence again). More important, they attracted New Seasons, Oregon's biggest regional natural foods grocery chain, to anchor the shopping district, along with a number of small, trendy shops. There's still a lot of undeveloped land in the TOD, but what there is has been developed very densely: 9.9 houses per acre, and far more units per acre in the townhouse and rental spaces. Washington County had no zoning that would allow that much density, so planned unit development standards were crafted and implemented for the new urbanist model.

The article cited has lots of discussion on whether there's decreased auto use due to proximity of work and shopping options, and that's clearly a win-win for any development. There has also been support in Todd Litman's blog of the notion that the biggest advantage of TOD is that people walk more. Looks like this is a case in point.

So what to take away? First and foremost, TOD has to be done well, and the financing has to be as solid as any other type of development - even if financing TOD has to be creative. But also, we may have to sacrifice some of our ideals to make it work, at least while the automobile is still in the ascendant. We can't expect TOD to create instant transit riders out of everyone, but if we can get them to walk and ride their bikes for the short trips, we've really done our job.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Moving You Forward

In case you hadn't heard, AATA is working on a 30-year Transit Master Plan for the county. They would really like to engage you! The process involves public meetings all over the county, many of which have already taken place. (My apologies for not bringing this to your attention earlier - family stuff has been happening...) Here are the ones scheduled for the future:

Monday, Oct. 18 Manchester Village Offices 11 am-1 pm
Monday, Oct. 18 SPARK East 3-5 pm
Tuesday, Oct. 19 Milan Senior Center 11 am- 1 pm
Wednesday, Oct. 20 Dexter Creekside Intermediate School Cafeteria 6:30-8:30 pm
Thursday, Oct. 21 Public Forum Ann Arbor District Library Main Branch Conference Room 5:30-6:30 pm
Monday, Oct. 25 Saline City Hall 6-8 pm
Tuesday, Oct. 26 Ann Arbor District Library Pittsfield Branch 11 am-1 pm
Tuesday, Oct. 26 Ann Arbor District Library Malletts Creek Branch 6-8 pm
Wednesday, Oct. 27 EMU Student Center 11 am- 1 pm
Wednesday, Oct. 27 Dexter Township Hall 6-8 pm
Thursday, Oct. 28 Manchester Village Offices 6-8 pm
Wed, Nov. 3 Milan Senior Center 6-8 pm

AATA has developed a great internal team to coordinate the effort, and a broad group of leaders and technically-involved people to guide the direction of the plan. Special kudos to Michael Benham, Project Coordinator, and Mary Stasiak, Community Relations Manager! These two have been tireless in moving the process along, yet they've managed to remain cheerful and outgoing in spite of their long hours and the high pressure. BTW - if you ride AATA, you've heard Mary - she does all the recorded announcements. :-) Go, Mike! Go, Mary!

Now, the best place to get involved is the Moving You Forward Web site. Check the list of meetings for up-to-date details. And play the Transit Plan Game!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Three Strategic Responses

I'd like to share these comments with you. They're in response to a presentation made at AATA's budget retreat in August - unfortunately, this hasn't been made available online. Due to the Board's 2-minute limit on public comment, it was only possible for me to hit the highlights orally, but here's the full thing. The full Board meeting was televised on Ann Arbor Community Cable TV, and may still be playing if you check quickly.

Comments for AATA Board, September 16, 2010

First of all, I'd like to thank the AATA staff and board for their hard work on the six decision-point issues presented at the August budget retreat. I would like to add a few comments on the three issues affecting transit for Ypsilanti, to the Airport, and WALLY.

Strategic Issue Analysis #3: Work Transportation Between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. As a resident in and planning commissioner for Ypsilanti Township, this is important to me.

  • AATA Proposal w1 - #4 Washtenaw route: more frequent peak-hour service at 10-minute intervals: every 10 minutes is excellent. This level of frequency means people can go to a bus stop without worrying about schedules, and expect a bus to come along in 5 minutes, average.
  • AATA Proposal w2 -Ypsilanti local routes - service every 30 minutes all day: 30 minute frequencies makes a great improvement over the current one hour intervals. However, most of the routes are loops, which make them unattractive to choice riders. For example, an Ypsilanti Township resident boarding Route #10 at Forest and Ford would take 32 minutes to get to the Ypsilanti Transit Center in the morning, but less than half that time - only 13 minutes - to get back in the evening. Wake Up Washtenaw's recommendation: alter the routes to provide simpler, two-way service on each street; or failing that, run the loops in opposite directions every half-hour.
  • AATA Proposal w3 - #4 Washtenaw route - more frequent midday service: every 15 minutes is very good.
  • AATA Proposal w4 - Express service during peak hours between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor using Packard Road with no stops between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor transit centers: express service sounds like it might be a good idea, but is unlikely to succeed as proposed.
    • Downtown to downtown doesn't serve the places where Ypsilanti residents work, as shown on the "Ypsilanti Area Residents Place of Work (LEHD)" slide (shown here - click the image for a larger version). The largest employment center is the U of M North Campus/VA Hospital complex with more than 3000 Ypsi residents working there; followed by the St. Joseph/WCC area with somewhere between 700 and 3000. EMU employs somewhere in the same range of Ypsi residents. Downtown Ann Arbor is the workplace for only 300 to 700 Ypsi residents. The high employment areas for Ypsi residents all happen to be served by one route, which would suggest that more frequent service along Route #3 would be the best solution.
    • Intermediate stops are essential. A dedicated right-of-way between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would make it possible for express service to get between the two cities quickly, but not with an "express" bus running in rush-hour traffic. In any case, without stops at important transfer points such as Arborland, and at heavy concentrations of employment, such as UM Medical Center, the express route wouldn't save time for most people.There is a dedicated right of way between the two cities: the Norfolk-Southern railway line. If you could commute during rush hours between the Ypsi Depot Town station-to-be and the Fuller Road station-to-be (near U of M Hospital), the train would take 10-15 minutes. But would it save time getting to your work place?
  • AATA Proposal w5 - Express service midday between AA and Ypsi: not cost-effective at the estimated $2.65 per new rider. Increased midday frequency (w3) is a far better investment at $1.58, and more helpful for increasing reliance upon transit in the corridor.
  • AATA Proposal e1 - #4 Washtenaw route - more frequent evening service: In spite of its relatively high cost per new rider, Wake Up Washtenaw believes this service would be a good investment. It would increase the ability to rely on transit among those who work late, including university students, hospital shift-workers, and those patronizing restaurants, bars, and cinemas downtown.
  • AATA Proposal e2 - #4 Washtenaw route - later evening service: another service that appears relatively expensive, but which Wake Up Washtenaw believes would be a good investment. The estimate of new riders (35) is low when considering the importance of evening frequency in increasing transit-oriented culture in our region. AATA's cost estimate for extending maintenance and supervision to evenings is placed entirely on the shoulders of Route #4, but would be lowered in the hopeful event that more routes get later evening service and absorb part of this cost.
  • AATA Proposal s1 - #4 Washtenaw route - later Saturday service at 45-minute intervals: we believe this would be more cost-effective at 30-minute intervals by attracting more riders. No regular AATA service currently operates at 45-minute intervals, so that odd timing would confuse many potential riders. Was this potential confusion taken into account in the model that predicted 430 additional riders? 30-minute intervals would decrease confusion, hence increasing potential ridership, without increasing maintenance and supervision portions of the cost.
  • AATA Proposal s2 - #4 Washtenaw route - later Sunday service: as with later Saturday service, 45-minute service intervals are confusing and have the potential to decrease ridership.

Strategic Analysis #4: DTW Service.

I am a frequent user of MDOT's Michigan Flyer service and would welcome better coordination between AATA and MDOT. The current service is quite good, and AATA service, as such, to the Airport isn't necessary. However, two problems need to be addressed to improve access between Ann Arbor and the airport.

  • Connection to the rest of the transportation system and passenger centers: the Flyer currently stops at the Four Points Sheraton, not far from Briarwood. This is reasonably convenient to I-94, but inconvenient to downtown and especially the University. The nearest AATA routes (numbers 6, 7, and 36) stop about two blocks away, but getting from AATA stops to the Flyer stop is confusing at best, and quite difficult when hauling a suitcase. I suggest route 36 be extended to the Sheraton; perhaps also route 6 or 7. [Update: in discussion with AATA staff, I learned that opinion is crystalizing around moving the Ann Arbor Flyer stop to the University Park-and-Ride on State Street, across from the Howard Cooper auto dealership. This would provide a direct connection with AATA Route #36, and a free place to park. The waiting facilities are not as comfortable as the Sheraton, of course, but apparently it's easier for buses to get in and out and takes no longer than going to the Sheraton, and seems the most satisfactory all-around solution.]
  • Frequency of service to the airport: The Flyer currently runs at two-hour intervals to and from DTW from early morning to late evening. That's a good start, but not enough for true convenience. Wake Up Washtenaw recommends one-hour intervals as the next step. It wouldn't be necessary to run hourly all the way from DTW to East Lansing. One option would be to originate a trip on alternate hours from the BTC, calling at the University Transit Center and/or Fuller road station, and the State Street area before going directly to DTW, operated by Indian Trails with coaches similar to those now in use. Three-way negotiations between MDOT, AATA, and the University could result in joint funding and marketing to make this new service a success.

Strategic Analysis #5: WALLY

Although the economy has put the brakes on WALLY, the economy of our region will be greatly enhanced when it is completed. The key to success is financial involvement of the private sector. Rather than looking only to governments to build stations, business interests can be expected to share in the investment if they can expect to earn profits from WALLY through any of several public-private partnership models. Not only can such partnerships fund stations that are more than concrete slabs, but they can engage the business interests of sectors that might lack enthusiasm for a totally government-oriented project. Given the current tight money situation, innovative financing arrangements such as the three-tranche system advocated by Christopher Leinberger for transit-oriented development could open possibilities for commercial and residential development. Wake Up Washtenaw recommends that in addition to seeking government funds, AATA actively partner with the U of M schools of Business and Urban Planning to make a case for private investment in the WALLY line to businesses.

Now it's your turn!

Weigh in on these issues yourself. Leave a comment or two!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Three Whoopees and two Wait-and-Sees

We recently received three pieces of good news about transportation in Michigan, but there are still two important issues waiting to be resolved:

  1. Whoopee! In the Detroit area, voters on August 2 strongly affirmed their desire to keep SMART bus service by renewing the millage. The margins were 71.8% in Macomb County, 73.7% in Wayne, and an astounding 78.1% in normally conservative Oakland County. Does this indicate a major shift in desire to see strong public transit in Michigan? (Here's the article in the "Freep".)
  2. Whoopee! Also on August 2, US Department of Transportation Secratary Ray LaHood held a joint press conference in Detroit with Mayor Bing to announce significant progress in the M1 Rail project, to be built on Woodward Avenue. This project is especially important because it has moved forward largely through private initiative, led by Detroit businessmen Roger Penske, Mike Illitch, Peter Karmanos, and Dan Gilbert. Wake Up Washtenaw is dedicated to progress through public-private partnership. Of course it's well known that the Obama administration has made public development of improved rail service a priority, but private participation means the entire community will be behind sustainable development - not just the public sector. (Here's what Crane's had to say.)
  3. Whoopee! The Michigan State Legislature last week passed the Complete Streets bills (2010 PA 134 and 135). We've become the 14th state to require new street designs to include safe pedestrian and bicycle facilities - not just more traffic lanes. This legislation was co-sponsored by Washtenaw County's own Rep. Pam Byrnes. :-) (The Michigan Complete Streets Coalition has the details.)

But wait...

  1. Sigh. No legislation yet on a regional transit authority for all of the Detroit area.
  2. Sigh. No resolution to the inadequate funding for Michigan's Amtrak service.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What About Low-speed Rail?

This morning I read Hannah Clark's article, "Time for Better Railroads in Michigan?" and found a good update on what's going on in southeast Michigan. But the article is written from a northern Michigan perspective, and had this observation:

“I’d love to get on a train and go Up North, if it took four hours,” Mr. Steudle [MDOT's Director] said. “But, right now, it takes nine. It’s going to take a lot of money in physical infrastructure improvements.”

Yes, it would take a lot of money - both up front and ongoing - to maintain the tracks to Traverse city and Petosky for 79 MPH passenger service. (Not as much as maintaining a freeway for 70 MPH auto traffic, but let's face it: we do have a double standard.) But nine hours isn't really much time - if it's at night. Given comfortable sleeping and dining accommodations, an overnight train from southeast Michigan to Traverse City could have a big draw. Here's a word-picture:

Early on a summer Friday evening, a classic-looking train pulls out of the Troy-Birmingham Transit Center. Young families and retired couples have parked in the attached structure and boarded the train, some to coaches with reclining seats, others to roomettes and bedrooms with bunks and snowy linen. Sleeping accommodations at various price/comfort points offer a good night's rest to a range of individual and family travelers.

An hour after starting, the announcement comes through on the PA: it's time to serve dinner. Just as on many dinner-excursion trains now, an accomplished chef is on hand to cook up gourmet meals. Drinks, snacks, and food that appeals to kids are also available in the observation-lounge car. A game-arcade room is available for the kids who tire of watching the Michigan summer evening slipping past. For those who do appreciate the view, there's a dome car with an even better view of the countryside.

Gradually, the sun sinks to the horizon in the northwest. Sunset colors swell, and gradually fade from sky. While the older folks sink into their bunks to be rocked asleep by the gentle motion of the train, the teens hang out in the lounge and dome cars until well into the wee hours. Small children reluctantly snuggle in while their parents try to calm down their excitement - all night on a train!

An early sunrise Saturday morning finds the train rolling through the pines and birches of the northern lower peninsula, filled with sleeping people. At 6:30 a.m., the PA crackles to life with the announcement that the breakfast buffet is open: omelettes, pancakes, railroad french toast, fruit, yogurt, cereal, pastries, coffee, tea, and milk. Many ignore the announcement, rolling over to catch a few more Zs, but those who make their way to the diner find both food and friendly chat as they watch the lakes and hills of Wexford County slide by.

Shortly before 9 a.m., the train rolls in to Traverse City and parks on a siding. Most of the passengers head out to the waiting rental cars, tour buses, or nearby hotels. Some have elected to use the train as their base for the weekend, renting their bedrooms over Saturday night and returning to Southeast Michigan Sunday evening. Some will be returning after a week or two of vacationing "up north".

The trip back down is much like the northbound trip. The same services and accommodations are offered, and the schedule is timed to leave early Sunday evening, arriving at Birmingham-Troy early enough to allow working folks a reasonable commuting time.

How does that sound?

I think it sounds very comfortable, a lot of fun, and pretty expensive. Driving would certainly be cheaper - no question. Subsidies might be arranged: not government subsidies, because this isn't essential transportation. It's more like a cruise on land. But it would bring visitors and tax revenue to Northern Michigan. Hotels, resorts, restaurants, area visitors' bureaus and chambers of commerce could well see it as advantageous to offer packages which include some level of subsidy negotiated with the railroad or train operator. It could work - someday soon.

Here's the reference to the article that spurred my interest::

"Time for Better Railroads in Michigan? Fed’s big bucks, local forums build interest in rail transit, freight", by Hannah Clark. Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, referred to in Michigan Land Use Institute's site.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

SEMCOG Swings Toward Transit

You may recall that SEMCOG, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, is our "Metropolitan Planning Organization" (MPO). In the scheme of things these days, MPOs are an important link in the transportation funding chain. All requests for transportation dollars in urban areas like southeast Michigan have to go through an MPO before any federal funds will trickle down. And before any such requests make their way to Washington, they have to go through a public comment period. So Wednesday's request for public comment is an important phase in SEMCOG's latest revision of plans.

It's sad, though. Really sad that SEMCOG has to make these revisions. You see, Michigan's citizen's haven't come up with enough money to match the federal grants available to us, so SEMCOG has had to cut out some expensive projects and go for more modest ones. Most of the projects we can't afford to match have been "postponed" 2-4 years, but of course if we Michiganders don't decide to invest a little more in our infrastructure, they'll be postponed again. And again...

What's being cut out? Here are the biggies:

  • Replacing the Fort Street bridge over the Rouge River in Detroit (we lose $38.6M federal funds to save $6.7M of Michigan taxpayers' hard-earned money);
  • Just saying "No" to $30.0M federal dollars to save $4.6M Michigan money for reconstructing 3 miles of VanDyke in Macomb County;
  • By turning down $16.4M for M-53 reconstruction and intersection improvements in Macomb, we save an incredible $3.6M for Michigan.
  • In Washtenaw County, we're only saving $1.3M of our dollars by foregoing $8.8M federal dollars for rehabilitating a mile of US-12 through Saline.

In all, SEMCOG is waving off $100,328,000 of federal money in canceled projects. But wait! Not all of that is lost, because that Michigan money, together with another half million of state money, is being invested in fewer, less expensive projects. And instead of being all highway-oriented, most the added projects are more sustainable transportation modes. Here's what each area would get if this proposal is approved:

  • The Detroit area: new buses for SMART, computers for DDOT, a new vehicle for the People Mover, and a freight rail spur to serve the river port ($1,505,000: $1,220,000 federal, $226,000 state, $59,000 local);
  • In the wider SEMCOG area: a hand with Livingston County's LETS mobility assistance, vans for Boysville, and a transportation demand system for Michigan Rideshare; ($424,000: $343,000 federal, $81,000 state)
  • Dearborn: help to build its new rail+bus station ($28,204,000 all federal high-speed rail funds);
  • Washtenaw County: a hand with rebuilding the Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor, together with improvements for some heavily-used bus stops; and operating assistance for People's Express in the rural western parts of the county ( $1,134,000 $938,000 federal, $12,000 state, and $184,000 from AATA "farebox" revenues). In addition to the transit assistance, this proposal acknowledges Ann Arbor's plan to spend $2.5 million of its local funds to reconstruct three blocks of Stone School Road, between the I-94 overpass and Ellsworth Road; and requests $1,099,000 in unmatched federal funds for "signal interconnect" in various locations along Packard, Hewitt, Carpenter, Ellsworth, and Michigan Ave.

Here's a table summarizing the proportions of road to non-road investment:

Road Totals $2,344,000 7% $21,343,000 98% $2,277,000 90% $25,965,000 46%
Non-road Totals $29,644,000 93% $329,000 2% $243,000 10% $30,216,000 54%

State and local funding is still overwhelmingly road-oriented, but federal money is being channeled primarily to projects oriented toward public transportation: buses, vans, rail and stations, software for transit management. Way to go, SEMCOG!

You can read the Public Notice and download a PDF of the details at Remember, though: these are just proposals. SEMCOG has opened the public comment phase until July 29, 2010, so let them know how you feel about this.

  • Mail: SEMCOG Information Center, 535 Griswold, Suite 300, Detroit, MI 48226;
  • Faxes: 313-961-4869;
  • Email:

Comments can be made in person at the following meetings, all held at SEMCOG offices: Buhl Building, 535 Griswold, Suite 300, Detroit, MI 48226.

  • Transportation Improvement Program Development Committee (TIPDC), Thursday, July 15, 2010, 10:00 a.m.; discuss proposed actions and recommend Transportation Advisory Council support;
  • Transportation Advisory Council (TAC), Wednesday, July 28, 2010; 9:30 a.m.; present and discuss actions and recommend Executive Committee approval; and
  • Executive Committee, Thursday, July 29, 2010; 1 p.m.; discuss amendment and FY 2011-2014 TIP and take final action to approve.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

From the Middle East

(Originally written April 25, 2010)

It's been a busy few weeks in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel! I wasn't there to study transit or development patterns, but there's no escaping the topic once you get into the habit of thinking about it. So here are a few reflections...


After a week in Lebanon, you can be sure I came up with some great ideas to improve their transportation - but of course, they're probably worth very little in the economic and political realities of 21st century Lebanon!

Lebanon is a prosperous little country, a mini-California in its climate and geography. During the long civil war in the 1980s and '90s, many Lebanese citizens fled to other countries (especially the Persian Gulf), where they worked hard and sent home lots of money. For the most part, this was invested wisely in buildings and infrastructure, so even though Beirut and several other Lebanese cities were bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces in 2006, there are very few scars left in busy Beirut. But it would not make much sense for Lebanon to invest heavily in infrastructure until the situation in the Middle East stabilizes and the Lebanese central government is able to assert its authority over the entire country.

Even if politics and international relations weren't tremendous factors, geography would be a big challenge for Lebanon's transportation structure. Most of Lebanon's population lives in a narrow strip of land running north to south along the Mediterranean Sea, hemmed in by mountains that, in places, actually jut out into the sea. Far from being a solid rampart, though, the mountains are riven by steep valleys that run mostly at right angles to the coast.

For some reason, there is very little public transportation in Lebanon. What few buses I saw were weary-looking 20-25 passenger affairs, apparently still in their gray primer paint; mainly Toyota Coasters. But as I mentioned, Lebanon has prospered, and most people seem to own a vehicle of their own. Some are certainly run-down and battered, but there are surprising numbers of new Mercedes and BMWs zooming around. US-brand cars are pretty few and far between, with Japan, Korea, and Germany the main providers, though the French have a solid foothold, and even the Chinese have a small toehold. The result of all this is traffic that makes I-94 at rush hour look like a picnic. It doesn't help that the Arab way of driving is very different from ours, resulting in some pretty hair-raising experiences until you realize that there's a system. Very few accidents actually happen, but it takes a long time to get anywhere, and there are no realistic options besides a car of your own, or a taxi. (I'm so glad I didn't try to rent a car.)

Most of the traffic is concentrated in the coastal zone, which has an expressway reminiscent of I-5 through Seattle or Portland. This is the western backbone of the country, which needs a robust public transportation axis on which to hang a multitude of east-west feeder lines. In effect, that's what the road system does now, but its capacity is inadequate, especially in the Beirut metro area. What a shame the coastal railroad was torn up 20-30 years ago - the capacity of rail is badly needed now. A moderate-speed railway along the coast would be ideal, topping out at 120 kh/h or about 85 mph - no need for a bullet train in this small country. It would need to be at least double-track all the way from north to south, with a 4-track main for local commuter service in the Beirut area.

The main part of the capital juts out on a peninsula into the Mediterranean, and a crescent-shaped rail loop following the coast to the downtown areas would work nicely. But there is a large urban area in a valley extending east from the coastal region. I'd vote for a busway along the east-west expressway into the city as the spine for this area.

In fact, all the east-west lines are ideal for buses. Many of the valleys are very steep-sided - canyons, really - so the settlements are often on the hilly ridges rather than in the valley-bottoms. As a result, the roads leading up from the coast are extremely steep and winding, quite unsuitable for rail, although in some places cable cars or funicular railways might meet short-distance transportation needs. Probably the ideal solution would be trolley buses for towns closer to the coast, and diesel buses for the more distant ones.

Electric buses offer several advantages over diesel in this environment. For one thing, the air is quite polluted in the densely-populated city, and zero-emission vehicles would be a great help. Lebanon generates quite a respectable percentage of its electricity through hydro-electric generating stations, so the pollution wouldn't simply be moved elsewhere. The rapid acceleration of electric vehicles is very valuable on steep hillsides, as you know if you've ridden trolley buses in San Francisco or Seattle. The ability to regenerate electric power while braking on down-slopes could save a considerable amount of energy - not quite enough to power the up-hill vehicles, but enough to help a great deal. Of course, the initial investment is high, but in a relatively prosperous, small, densely-populated metropolitan area like Beirut, it would not be an insuperable obstacle.

Unfortunately, the real obstacle is not so much financial as political. The deep, long-standing distrust between members of the different ethnic and religious groups in Lebanon pose a threat that would make it difficult for investors to justify long-term improvements in infrastructure. What a shame - Lebanon is a beautiful country with tremendous potential for success.

Amman, Jordan

I didn't spend enough time in Amman to make any meaningful observations, except that there are a lot of buses, large and small. Amman was the capital of the ancient Ammonites, mentioned several times in the Old Testament, and like most ancient cities, Amman's streets aren't laid out in anything resembling a grid. However, expressways have been built linking the neighborhoods together, tunneling through some hills and bridging deep gullies where necessary. This is a city where buses make sense, though electric (trolley) buses would be preferable to diesel buses if the capital investment weren't so high. I'm told that most of Jordan's electricity is generated with natural gas, so the overall CO2 would only be reduced a little, but particulate matter would be removed from the city. Probably not worth the investment until the cost of diesel skyrockets.


The Holy City is a dense, bustling metropolis with a lively public transportation network. As of April 2010, the only public mode is buses, but there is a wide variety of them. Egged, the Israeli public transport cooperative, runs lots of full-size and articulated buses, mainly from the German firm MAN. It's a bit startling to American eyes to be looking at a street which to us appears to be a narrow, quiet residential street, and suddenly see a huge, articulated bus come roaring along it, packed with people, both sitting and standing. In addition to Egged, there is a company called Puma that runs large buses, but they tend to be older and appear accustomed to hard usage.

An American woman, an acquaintance who rides the buses frequently, mentioned that she had gotten on one at about 10 PM one night to go home, and had ended up having to ride it for an hour and a half. Why? Because at one stop, about 40 orthodox Jewish men had gotten on the already well-patronized bus, and were squeezed into a solid mass in the aisle. For a woman to try to push her way through such a mass of Jewish orthodox manhood would be absolutely and totally taboo. So when the bus came to her stop, she had to stay on and ride it around its entire route.

Then there are the mini-buses. These hold 10-20 people and run from the city to the outlying towns. They appear pretty much alike, except that the ones going to Jewish areas have blue stripes, and those going to Palestinian towns have green stripes. Of course, there are also huge, luxurious tour -coaches, which aren't exactly public transportation, but which seem almost more numerous than their humbler public brethren.

Most interesting is the Old City. There is only one kind of transportation there: your feet. The Old City is a maze of narrow passageways, often roofed over, between shops, houses, monasteries, hostels, churches, mosques, yeshivas, more shops, and who knows what else. I went into the Old City a number of times, and when I went alone I never failed to get lost trying to get out. Fortunately, getting lost was more of an adventure than a problem!

The Old City's ways are paved with stones worn smooth by millennia of pedestrians. Many are steep and have steps, but these all have little built-in stone ramps just wide enough for the push-carts used to supply the shops with their goods. I was warned that if you hear a kid yelling behind you, it's best to move to the side quickly, since the youngsters employed to push the carts love to zoom down the hills scattering tourists and residents alike.

The buses run only in the newer parts of the city, which is growing in population and area. So, guess what? Jerusalem is building a light rail system! Several busy streets in the new sections are torn up to make way for the rails and stations, and there is a wonderful, curved suspension bridge designed by the renowned Spanish architect/engineer, Santiago Calatrava. Señor Calatrava took a practical problem - a confined, busy space for a tight turn - and created a work of art, a lovely flight of fancy. If more elevated railways combined beauty and utility this way, cities like Chicago would be a wonder to behold.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The [High Speed] French Connection

Today I attended the Midwest High Speed Rail Association's annual meeting in Chicago. The most interesting talk was from Monsieur Guillaume Gernin, of the Société National de Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF, the French national railway company). I want to tell you about it because high speed rail (HSR) is a key component of sustainable transportation and development. When properly integrated with other modes of transportation (local and regional transit, air, road, pedestrian, and bike), HSR enables people to move rapidly and seamlessly with little or no expenditure of fossil fuels or emission of greenhouse gasses. It can radically change development patterns and reduce sprawl by clustering residential and business development around stations and reducing people's need to own multiple private vehicles.

A little background: on December 11, 2008 (my birthday!) the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a "Request for Expressions of Interest in Designing, Building, and Operating a High Speed Rail System" along one or more of eleven designated HSR corridors. This was part of the Obama administration's effort to bring HSR to America.

SNCF is a shareholder-owned company, though the major shareholder is the French government. In addition to operating some of the fastest HSR services around, SNCF has multiple subsidiaries and joint ventures in many parts of the world, including some in North America - and they'd like to expand their operations here. With that in mind, they submitted four Expressions of Interest in response to the FRA's request - detailed proposals for HSR in four areas: Texas, Florida, California, and the Midwest. You can get the entire 256 page Midwest PDF document here; the entire set is linked here.)

What makes this especially interesting is that SNCF has such extensive experience running HSR in France and designing systems for other countries. Their first HSR, between Paris and Lyon, began in 1981. Theirs was the first HSR in Europe, though Japan's Shinkansen predates it by 17 years. In other words, they have credibility.

They also make a profit on their HSR operations. It's extremely popular in France (as is HSR throughout Europe), giving all of SNCF about $1.75 billion USD profit margin in 2007, according to Wikipedia - though M. Gernin says other SNCF operations in France lose money.

Sounds good, but what would it cost? SNCF estimates the construction and equipment for the entire Midwest at $68.5 billion in 2009 US dollars. Compare that with the $8 billion appropriated under ARRA, and it seems pretty overwhelming.

But SNCF estimates operating revenues would pay back the initial costs in about 15 years. And consider the construction cost of the US Interstate Highway System, about $1.3 trillion, unadjusted for inflation. None of that has been paid back - though of course having the system has brought immense economic value...and changed development to the sprawl patterns we're living in today.

So recouping the investment in 15 years is pretty astonishing. It would be unbelievable, except for the wide and deep experience of SNCF. Their submission of the Expression of Interest was a business decision, based on the expectation of long-term profitability.

SNCF doesn't expect to go it alone. They expect to operate in partnership with government: 54% of the initial capital would come from government sources, and the rest from the private sector through joint venture partners and investors. After these are paid back, they stipulate that no operating or maintenance subsidy would be needed, based on their experience elsewhere. Wow.

The Midwest system SNCF proposes would operate from a hub in Chicago to end-points in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Naturally, they don't expect to build the entire system at once. They suggest starting with O'Hare Airport - Milwaukee - Madison - St. Paul - Minneapolis and O'Hare - Fort Wayne - Toledo - Detroit, but of course that could change.

What would the system consist of? Dedicated double-track, much of it elevated. Trains would be standardized electric double-deckers. (M. Gernin said that when they started building HSR in France, "we had no idea we'd be so successful" and trains quickly became crowded; hence double-deck equipment from the start.)

How to achieve profitability? Their business model in France is based on the yield management system pioneered by US airlines. The system is based on the idea that the earlier people pay, the lower their price should be, and that popular times and dates cost more than less popular ones. Another factor in their financial success has been to provide connectivity with other modes of travel, especially air, and interoperability between high-speed and standard rail lines, so that high-speed trains can continue at lower speeds beyond the end of the dedicated tracks, and take passengers to a larger number of destinations.

Other factors critical to success: "de-risking" the process by public-private partnership, which reduces the risk both to taxpayers and investors; and including the company that will actually operate the trains in the earliest stages of the process, to insure there are no surprises or unworkable decisions made during the planning.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it does to me, frankly. Although SNCF has a history of successful HSR building and operation, US governments have a history of suspicion of foreign companies and of haggling projects to death. Just because SNCF made it work in Taiwan, Korea, Belgium, and Holland doesn't mean we can let them make it work here.

Guess I'm just feeling cynical. I sure hope I'm wrong!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Progress Here and Elsewhere

Rail is beginning to move in Michigan and elsewhere!

M-1 Rail

The Woodward Avenue rail project is making good progress. Matt Cullen, the CEO of M-1, was interviewed the other day by Kelli Kavenaugh for Model D Detroit. He said the funding is almost all in place, and the M-1 team is working with MDOT on a complete redesign of Woodward Avenue from Hart Plaza to Grand Boulevard (the extent of the M-1).

For the redesign and rails to happen, a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has to be submitted, and the state expects that to get done in 9-12 months. From there, construction would take a year or two, so we could expect the trains to roll in 2013. The second phase, to Eight Mile Road, could then get started and would take a couple of years more, bringing the trains out to the suburbs as early as 2014. Read the interview...


I attended a Town Hall Meeting in Chicago on March 6 put on by Amtrak and sponsored by Trains Magazine. Here are some take-away points:

  • Want to photograph Amtrak facilities? To avoid trouble from police and citizens concerned about terrorists, just let the nearest Amtrak or local authority know what you're doing. It's our constitutional right as Americans to photograph trains and stations, but it's also true that terrorists photograph their targets extensively to better plan their attacks.
  • Amtrak is planning to replace its equipment gradually in a continual upgrade process that will allow domestic rail equipment manufacturers to build facilities with some assurance that they won't be subject to deadly boom-and-bust cycles. Amtrak has always been a low-budget operation. Their passenger cars average 30 years old and several million miles of service. The oldest car in the fleet is a diner build in 1948.
  • Beginning in 2012, states will have to pick up the tab for operation of corridor trains, including our Wolverine Service (Pontiac-Chicago). This according to an Act of Congress, in the politically popular game of Pass the Hot Potato. Let's start letting our legislators know if we find that service useful, since we'll have to actually pay for it ourselves soon. (By the way: Amtrak operations recover 80% of their own cost, far better than most US transportation agencies.)


According to Zachary Shahan in a CleanTechnica, article based on Hong Kong's South China Morning Post and the Edmonton Journal, China is well on the way to constructing high-speed rail lines to connect it with Mongolia, Russia, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, and Europe. The high points:

  • China completed the world's highest rail line to Lhasa, Tibet, in 2006. (It's not high-speed, but uses US-build General Electric diesel locomotives and tops out at 16,640 feet.)
  • China completed the world's fastest high-speed rail line, from Wuhan to Guangzhou, in 2009. The express runs average 217 MPH, using equipment built in China, based on German (Siemens) and Japanese (Kawasaki) designs. It easily outpaces its nearest rival, France, whose top in-service average is 172 MPH.
  • Though already spending $300 billion on its own high speed network, China plans to build rail links to 17 other countries through barter agreements, at no monetary cost to them. China is more interested in rights to raw materials for its manufacturing than in money.
  • Negotiations are already said to be taking place between China and 17 other countries. China says the other countries approached it first, wanting to make use of Chinese experience and technology to build railways that would enable them to export their raw materials to China more effectively.
  • Building and managing such a rail network throughout Asia would cement China's position as the undisputed leader of commerce in Asia. Who could doubt that it would enhance their political clout there, as well?
  • The best-case scenario calls for completion of the network in 10 years. Whether or not it gets done in that time-frame, there's no doubt that China will get started on it soon. They have the money. They need the resources. They really want the political clout.


Rail transportation is clearly making progress: in Detroit, in America, and in Asia. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about how much progress is being made, where.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Commuting in Maryland

Returning from sunny climes on Amtrak, I stopped in DC and Maryland yesterday to check out their commuter rail facilities.

On the way into DC, there was lots of evidence of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the Virginia suburbs, like these office+apartments near the Alexandria Amtrak/Virginia Rail Express/Metro station.

I spent the night in Baltimore, continuing from DC Union Station. "Make no small Plans," wrote Daniel Burnham, architect of that noble station and one of my personal heroes, "they have no power to stir men's blood."

During a refreshing pause in the lower level food court (above), I thought about which of two roughly parallel commuter lines I'd take to Baltimore. MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter) evolved from local service of the Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroads, crystallizing as a state-run service in 1976 with the collapse of private passenger service through the US. Michigan faced a similar decision at about the same time, but took a different route: we killed our commuter rail subsidies in the 1980s. SEMTA (Detroit-Pontiac) lost state funding and died in 1983, and the Michigan Executive (Detroit-Ann Arbor) perished of the same cause in 1988.

I decided to start on the Camden Line (Washington Union Station to Baltimore Camden Station) which runs over the B&O tracks on which service began in the 1830s . It's a diesel-hauled double-track line; my train was pulled by this GP40WP-2 (shown here at the Camden end of the line, only 4/5 of a mile from Mount Clare Station, the first railway station in the US, started in 1828).

The single-level Sumitomo/Nippon Sharyo coaches are a bit cramped with 3+2 seating; I managed to read on my laptop, but typing was impossible, even though my neighbor was a slender young woman.

In the morning, I took the a Baltimore light rail train to Penn Station, chatting with a friendly woman who was taking a passenger survey.

Baltimore's Penn Station is beautifully designed, but is showing its age and in need renovation and ADA upgrades.

I caught a Penn Line train back to DC. As you might guess, this runs along the former Pennsylvania main line, electrified in 1935. MARC uses AEM-7 and HHP-8 electric locomotives on this line. I'm not sure which pushed my train (our locomotive was beyond the end of the platform), but here's a picture of the MARC HHP-8 which was waiting behind us on the arrival track in DC.

All MARC trains push south into Union Station and pull out north. MARC's Penn line is said to be the fastest commuter line in the US, with some trains traveling up to 125 MPH. I doubt that my all-stops local got quite that high, judging from the WHOOSH with which an Acela passed us going the same direction.

The Kawasaki bilevel coaches were more roomy, and I was able to take care of email on the way (using my cell modem - no en route WIFI).

An amazing number of people streamed off the train into the station.

All in all, it was a smooth, enjoyable commute each way, except for the tight seating in the single-level coaches. I can't wait for Michigan to get our own commuter and light rail systems!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Leinberger and Zielinski Opportunity

This will be one of the most interesting presentations for Ann Arbor on Transit-Oriented Development:

  • When: Monday February 15, 1:30-3:00 PM
  • Where: Art and Architecture Building Lecture Hall, North Campus, University of Michigan
  • Who: Christopher B. Leinberger and Susan Zielinski
  • Topic: Transit Oriented Development:
    What? Why? Local Examples? How Do They Leverage Sustainablity?

Leinberger and Zielinski are both internationally known experts in sustainable development and transportation's rule in sustainability. Leinberger is probably best known for his article, "The Next Slum" in Atlantic Monthly, published at the height of the real estate plunge. He is a Professor of the University of Michigan and is to deliver a lecture to a class that day, but lives in Washington DC, occupied with his full-time research fellowship at The Brookings Institution. His insights into real estate finance are widely sought after, and we expect to get some good input on the 15th.

Sue Zielinski is also on the faculty at U of M, Managing Director of SMART (Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation, a project of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor). She has observed and consulted with transportaton systems all around the world, so we can expect both broad and deep insights from her.

We're fortunate to have two world experts in our community, so go if you can! (I can't - anybody want to report on it for us?)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Passenger Rail, Low Population Density

In the Fall of 2008, I spent three weeks in Japan to learn about the highly acclaimed Japanese rail system. Of special interest to me is how Japanese railways provide service to areas with low population density. You see, people often say the railways of Europe and Japan can't really serve as models for US passenger rail service, because their population is so much more dense than ours. It's very true that most of Japan and Europe are more densily populated than most of the US, and it's also true that passenger rail works best in densely populated areas.

So I made a point of visiting areas where population was relatively sparse: the south and east of the island of Shikoku; the inland areas of the southern island of Kyushu; and the entire northern island of Hokkaido. I've put together a couple of documentary videos with footage from my trip to Hokkaido; what follows is based on parts of the video narrative.

Hokkaido proved the best example, especially for us here in Michigan. It is at exactly the same lattitude as the Lower Peninsula of Michigan (though it gets more snow!). It's just slightly smaller in area than the Lower Peninsula. The population density is slightly less than Michigan's. Yes, you read the right: it's *less* densely populated. We'll get to the figures in a moment.

Hokkaido is Japan's predominant agricultural area. It leads the country in the production of rice and fish, and shares the lead in vegetable farming. The productivity of Hokkaido rice land is 10 percent above the national average. Wheat, barley and potatoes are other staple crops, and dairy farming is a Hokkaido specialty.

Although there is some industry (most notably paper milling, brewing [Sapporo beer!], steel-making, oil refining, building supplies, marine services and food production), most of the population is employed in the service sector. Tourism is an important industry, especially during the cool summertime that attracts campers and hot spring-goers from across Japan. During the winter, skiing and other winter sports continue to bring tourists to Hokkaido. Does that sound like what we might be looking at in Michigan's future?

Let's compare passenger rail systems in Michigan and Hokkaido. What is the actual relationship between population density and rail service? Since Hokkaido, at 173 people per square mile, is actually just a little less dense than Michigan, where we find an average of 179 in each square mile, we might predict that Hokkaido's rail service is similar or a little less that Michigan's.

What we find is radically different. Michigan has no commuter rail, no urban subways, no city street rail, no rail connections to any airports, and ten daily Amtrak round-trips, all starting or ending in Chicago and only serving the southern part of the state. Michigan does have five north-south expressways and three east-west ones.

Hokkaido, with slightly less density, has 4 commuter lines, 3 subway lines, five street rail lines; 72 daily round trips between the Sapporo regional airport and three cities, and about 154 intercity trains, serving every corner of the island. But Hokkaido has only one north-south freeway and one east-west limited access highway, neither of which reach the corners of the island, and one of which is still under construction.

Michigan Hokkaido
sq mi
sq mi
(2008 est.)
(June, 2008)
Population Density
per sq mi
per sq mi
Commuter rail
(so far!)
lines + local services to many towns
Urban subways
(so far!)
lines in 1 city
Street railways
lines in 2 cities
Airport rail connections
72 daily round-trips
Intercity rail
daily round-trips
daily round-trips (approx)
Limited-access highways
North-South (part-way)
East-West (partly under construction)

Why this difference? Not population density, though Hokkaido's rugged topography has tended to concentrate population somewhat in valleys and along the seacoast, which has not happened so much on Michigan's "pleasant peninsulas". Both, however, have areas of concentrated population that could easily be served by rail.

Both Hokkaido and Michigan began serious settlement during the ninteenth and early twentieth centuries, with rugged, pioneering types coming to trade for fur with indigenous people, to fish, to mine, to harvest lumber, and to farm. But while Michigan became a manufacturing powerhouse in the twentieth century, Hokkaido remained primarily agricultural. Both Hokkaido and Michigan were served by extensive rail systems during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Michigan's rail network was reduced much further in the late 20th century than was Hokkaido's.

So why the difference? It can be attributed largely to government policies in the post World War II era. Early in the 20th century, all of Japan's trunk railways were nationalized. Naturally, Japanese railways suffered heavy damage during World War II; they were reogranized in 1949 by directive of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's US General Headquarters in Tokyo as Japanese National Railways (JNR), a state-owned corporation.

JNR was operated professionally and was on the forefront of high-speed rail technology, developing the first dedicated high-speed railway in the world, the famed Shinkansen "bullet train", which began service in 1964. Unfortunately, JNR was also a favorite source of "pork" for members of the national legislature. Hundreds of unnecessary lines were built and services legislated by grasping politicians, eager to secure their reelection through favors to their home districts. (Where have we heard this story before?) By 1987, JNR's debt was over $200 billion USD and the company was spending 147% of its income - in spite of Japan's overall density of 888 people per square mile.

To put the railways beyond the grasp of politicians, JNR was privatized in 1987 and divided into seven companies, one of which is the Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido). (In case you wondered, the six regional JR passenger operating companies own and maintain their own rails and stations, unlike the British system, in which a nation-wide company owns and maintains the infrastructure, and several competitive passenger and freight companies operate trains.)

Meanwhile, the United States after World War II spent lavishly on the Interstate Highway System. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the total cost of the Interstate system was nearly $1.4 trillion USD between 1958 and 1991, the period during which the system was officially under construction. [] Unfortunately, our road system doesn't pay for itself through user fees, and has required propping up from general funds for the last few years.

To get a handle on the relative spending: the Japanese subsidized its railways by about $1700 USD per person. During approximately the same period, the US spent about $6,000 USD per person, meaning the Japanese citizen got his high-speed and regional rail system for about 29% of what the US citizen paid for his high-speed road system. Of course, the US spent some money on passenger rail during that time - but not much; and Japan spent money on limited-access highways. The US has far greater distances to cover as well.

The trend is clear, though: the US wants its transportation money spent on highways; Japan wants its spent on railways. The effect on population growth patterns is profound. The Japanese rail system subsidized dense urban growth, while the US highway system subsidized difuse suburban growth, popularly known as "sprawl". Nowhere has that been more pronounced than in Michigan, headquarters and devoted fan of the US automobile industry. Only after being afflicted with repeated oil crises has Michigan begun to consider beefing up its urban rail service with commuter and light rail in Detroit, and light rail in Grand Rapids.

Yet in Japan, including sparsely-populated Hokkaido, the railway company earns a profit. JR Hokkaido's bank balance was 68M USD as of March 2008. If you're interested in a more complete business report, a good source is an article in Japan Railway & Transport Review from March 2008, titled "Increasing Efforts to Strengthen Position as Leading Transportation Provider in Hokkaido", written by JR Hokkaido's Management Planning Department. (

Yes, there is government support, particularly for construction of new high-speed lines (now progressing in Kyushu and Hokkaido). But diversification is a strength and a theme of all the railway companies of Japan. Ever since serious abuses by US "rail barons" in late 19th century, anti-trust legislation here has strictly limited what US rail companies can own and what businesses they can engage in. JR Hokkaido has used diversification quite creatively to turn a profit.

A look through JR Hokkaido's Web site (roughly translated by Google) shows the company owns grocery stores, convenience stores, retail kiosks in stations; a medical clinic in Sapporo station; hotels in each of three cities and two in Sapporo; financial services (including stock trading, accounting, and a debit/ticket card); 3 hot springs resorts; 8 quick-cut ten-minute barber shops, bus lines that connect with trains; a travel agency; a toxic and sensitive waste disposal service; a driving school(!); urban development projects; and 10 major station retail and office properties, including a 38-story office tower on Sapporo Station, the tallest building in Hokkaido. One popular JR Hokkaido property is an amusement center under the elevated tracks near Sapporo station, with Internet-enabled "manga cafe", DVD players, TV, billiards, darts, massage chairs, and a large N-guage model railroad layout.

Hokkaido Railway has succeeded in avoiding red ink since 1997 not only by diversification, but by what might be considered "best practices": 1. Invest in infrastructure, maintenance, and cleanliness; 2. Research and develop better ways to provide rail service; 3. Develop a culture of meticulous attention to detail, especially in safety and punctuality; 4. Schedule and dispatch trains with extreme precision

If US passenger services followed these "best practices" and were allowed to diversify, who knows what we might see?