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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 16, 2010 12:45 PM. The previous post in this blog was $20 loaf of bread gets closer. The next post in this blog is You might be an accountant if.... Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

The crux of the streetcar and light rail problem

Ultimately we need to ask what constitutes transit's primary mission: to carry more people to work or to reshape our metropolitan areas for ever denser development. As opposed to buses, which largely serve those without access to cars, light rail lines are often aimed at middle-class residents who would also be potential buyers of high-density luxury housing. In this sense, light rail constitutes a critical element in an expanded effort to reshape the metropolis in a way preferred by many new urbanists, planners and urban land speculators.

The problem facing these so-called visionaries lies in the evolving nature of the workplace in most parts of the country, where jobs, outside of government employment, are increasingly dispersed. Given these realities, transit agencies should be looking at innovative ways to reach farther to the periphery, in part to provide access to inner-city residents to a wider range of employment options. Considering more than 80% of all commuter trips are between areas outside downtown, priority should be given to more flexible, less costly systems such as rapid commuter bus lines, bus rapid transit, as well as subsidized dial-a-ride and jitney services that can work between suburban centers.

Read the whole thing, here.

Comments (27)

Wow, he totally describes Portland's infatuation with light rail to a T. Must have been reading your blog . . .

"effort to reshape the metropolis in a way preferred by many new urbanists, planners and urban land speculators."

Not that this is their preferred way for YOU to live, not themselves.

I always felt that the lightrail was just a solution in search of a problem that didnt exist.

"I always felt that the lightrail was just a solution in search of a problem that didnt exist."

...and Milwaukie light rail is the perfect example of that. All we can hope is that the current installment of Bureaucrats Gone Wild ends before that gets pushed through.

Actually, all planners and politicians don't agree on light rail, despite the local infatuation with it (and Blumenauer's blatant attempts to hitch his wagon to an appropriations star). Many planners argue the very point made in the article--that monolithic, infrastructure-heavy light rail is exactly the opposite of what's needed, given the shifting nature of transportation needs and the sublimely ridiculous costs of rail in money, land, and ecology.

Don't depend on amateurish fellows like Adams (and the rest if City Council) to figure this out for you--he's no more clued in than the average citizen. His ego's driving the car, and many starry-eyed planners, bent on ignoring the past and practical examples, are hitched on for the ride.

Or, if you're looking for a simpler answer: light rail's cost and timeline keep lots of money flowing and "jobs" going, both in the private and public sector. It's too hard for them to say no; citizens need to say it.

Ecohuman has it right.
Earl, Sam-Rand, Tri-Met, et al....how about listening for a change? Go by bus.

We can start saying "no" by voting "no" on the Trimet bond in November.

The era in which light rail was a widespread solution at all, to the extent you feel that it was a widespread solution to anything, is certainly past. Even the most diehard Rail-Volution person should agree. Light rail is sold as furthering economic growth. Economic growth is, as Kunstler would say, coming off the menu. Thus, light rail generally is too, but so are all the other megaprojects.

That said, light rail across the Columbia would be a truly useful and worthwhile addition. Not on a new megabridge, but as part of a fixed rail bridge across the Columbia that would be designed so that we could stop the bridge lifts on I-5. For the costs of a rail bridge and bringing a new mode of cross-river travel for humans, we could unsnarl a lot of needless I-5 backups. In other words, take all the money programmed for Milwaukee light rail, cancel that project, and spend it on the two miles needed to get light rail to a terminus in Vancouver where it could be abundantly served by buses and bikes and call it a day.

I don't understand why we'll need light rail if we're all riding bikes.

"I always felt that the lightrail was just a solution in search of a problem that didnt exist."

The problem is that the planners are bored with existing problems like managing to supply cheap utilities for where people live and its more exciting to plan for the future where you can never be proved wrong.

Like - It only failed because we didn't spend enough money yet.

Plus its easier to encourage density so we can get the tax $/sqft of land up there.

As someone who served on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the original MAX line, I know as fact that Mr. Kotkin's claims are false if he intends them to apply to that line (the "Blue" line to Gresham).

That line was planned as an alternative use for Federal money that had been set aside for the cancelled Mt. Hood Freeway.

It was also planned to serve as a high capacity trunk line with lower operating costs than equivalent bus service.

It has performed both of those functions, although the complete funding story is a lot more complicated, and ended up with a lot of Federal money coming to Portland for highway projects.

Folks are welcome to make the "visionary" and "land speculator" arguments against the Streetcar, or more recent light rail lines, but they discredit themselves when they make overly broad claims. Indeed, there are numerous valid criticisms of the original MAX line -- just not the ones Mr. Kotkin appears to be making.

That line was planned as an alternative use for Federal money that had been set aside for the cancelled Mt. Hood Freeway.

Which doesn't contradict anything Kotkin said. Can you explain why you think it does? And how that makes the light rail somehow less expensive?

It was also planned to serve as a high capacity trunk line with lower operating costs than equivalent bus service.

Nice try of overlooking the *total* cost, and instead focusing on "operational" costs. But even so, I'd invite you to provide figures proving that--because it'd be the only service in the nation to do so.


Folks are welcome to make the "visionary" and "land speculator" arguments against the Streetcar, or more recent light rail lines, but they discredit themselves when they make overly broad claims.

Your entire post was broad claims. Do you not even realize that Kotkin is far from the first to point out the problems? Even the City's own planners have done so. If you were involved, you'd know that very well.

Indeed, there are numerous valid criticisms of the original MAX line -- just not the ones Mr. Kotkin appears to be making.

C'mon. Why not just write a comment where you say "I love light rail, and don't like those that don't?" Kotkin made several clear, unambiguous, specific points that are easy to validate. Here are a few:

In this sense, light rail constitutes a critical element in an expanded effort to reshape the metropolis in a way preferred by many new urbanists, planners and urban land speculators.

He's correct, because that's what transit oriented development is You should know that. It favors speculators--in fact, speculators are a key part of the planning effort. You plan *development* so that the *transit* has something to go to. Buses, however, work in the opposite way: they respond to demand, instead of making monstrous planning efforts to create it.

Here's another of Kotkin's statements:

The problem facing these so-called visionaries lies in the evolving nature of the workplace in most parts of the country, where jobs, outside of government employment, are increasingly dispersed.

Again, fact, and easy to verify. I did. Workplaces are not conforming to the hopes and dreams of new urbanists and proponents of maximum urban density. They're doing the opposite--just as Kotkin said.

Let's take a third Kotkin statement:

In cities across the country where there have been massive investments in light rail--from the Portland area to Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., and a host of others--the percentage of people taking transit has stagnated or even declined. Nationwide, the percentage of people taking transit to work is now lower than it was in 1980.

Again, *fact*, and you're welcome to verify it for yourself. I did. Here's a random story on Trimet's ridership decline, for example:

http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/06/trimet_ridership_slides_43_per.html

Notice in that link that MAX ridership is down more overall than any other mode.

So, given all of that, I'm mostly unconvinced by what you're saying.

The bizzare nature of TriMet & MAX proponents is they keep making claims that new lines will do what prior lines failed misearbly to do.

Exactly how many times do they need to be horribly wrong before changing the songs they sing?

And making matters worse is their failures keep getting more expensive.

Cascade Station $200 milion
SoWa $300 million
Green line 700 milion
Milwaukie Light Rail $1.7 billion
CRC $4.2 billion

And everywhere is the beast Urban Renewal devouring 100s of millions more trying to do what MAX did not.

ecohuman - When facts get in the way of agendas, they just get swept aside, doubted, debated, and roundly abused. The proponents of this stuff don't don't care about reality or facts, just unicorns and rainbows riding rails.

I don't disagree with some of Kotkin's arguments - light rail is expensive and not very flexible. But arguing that it doesn't serve dispersed job centers and therefore isn't worth the investment ignores the fact that the job (and residential) centers are dispersed largely because of the heavily-subsidized roads and the decades of land use policies and spending that supports them. We spend tons of money to build more and more roads and expand ever outward when we'd get more bang for the buck with smarter land use policies that helped concentrate certain kinds of development.

I'm not an urbanist who hates the suburbs - I live in the burbs - or rural areas (I hail from S. Missouri, the Ozarks, where my family lives on farms) and thinks everyone should live in dense high-rises; lots of people don't want to live that way and it's fine. But there's no reason why land use policies and spending priorities couldn't be adjusted to at least allow for the possibility of concentrating job & shopping centers around transportation hubs that can be better and more efficiently served by not just transit but all infrastructure.

Transit needn't be an either/or question; that's just how it's framed today.

The big problem Jennifer, is that in many cases like Portland's SoWhat District and the Beaverton Round these "hubs" fail to materialize with the jobs and residents that were predicted. And that's not to mention the enormous public costs to build these failing projects.

Jennifer -
Aside from the huge costs to build and run light rail; aside from the total lack of flexibility when you build something that runs on tracks. The other big advantage that roads have over 'light rail' is that roads carry goods, services AND people where light rail is designed to ONLY carry people. Light rail is expensive, impractical (for the vast majority of people) and (as someone else said) a solution in search of a problem.

That's right, in every case the "hubs", centers and corridors fail to materialize with the jobs and residents that were predicted.

It's because the model of zoning development to the mixed use, Transit Oriented Development is fatally flawed.
So after millions are spent to subsidize the initial development nothing happens.

Over and over again the private sector shows it doesn't pencil out.

Sites planned for market rate housing then get converted to things like parking garages. Not so TOD like.

But for some reason those who continue to push this failed approach think some day it will all come together.


In nearly every case, after a number of years go by with nothing happening the big tax subsidies begin again with the same expectations.

It's the same story on every line. There's abundant examples on our first line Eastside MAX at Gresham Station, Rockwood and Gateway.

It's the same story on the newest lines.

And always the excuses. Excuses that have grown to include some big whoppers.

The latest with Metro saying the 205 Green Line was built in the wrong place is almost funny. Because they claim had it been on 82d it would be spurring development.

Yeah sure it would, just like the Round?

I can't understand how newspapers and politicans keep buying this BS.

The same tall tales are bEing told to advance light rail to Milwaukie and Vancouver.

But arguing that it doesn't serve dispersed job centers and therefore isn't worth the investment ignores the fact that the job (and residential) centers are dispersed largely because of the heavily-subsidized roads and the decades of land use policies and spending that supports them.

Yes and no; mostly no. Yes, larger arterials (highways) helped, but mainly suburbs (and other connected communities) have been largely developed in reverse--the roads are built to go to them, after or at the same time. Now, it really doesn't matter much--the infrastructure is there, *and* cities like Portland are being surrounded by larger and larger nodes that don't need Portland to function.

And, despite current land use policies that attempt to densify and discourage suburbanization, cities in reality make all kinds of concessions to road building and expansion. Take the CRC, for example, or the widening of US 26. And so on.

But there's no reason why land use policies and spending priorities couldn't be adjusted to at least allow for the possibility of concentrating job & shopping centers around transportation hubs that can be better and more efficiently served by not just transit but all infrastructure.

There's no adjustment needed, because focusing on development of those nodes is already inherent in our locality.

What you might not see is what Kotkin indirectly pointed out--that despite hard-core efforts in some areas to do exactly what you described, development and private choices have other ideas. It's the essence of the reason Kotkin's giving.

Jennifer, ecohuman's point "that despite hard-core efforts in some areas to do exactly what you described" has an excellent example in SoWhat.

Investments have been made in a Tram, trolley (which does connect to a lightrail system), and possibly in light rail right in the district itself-all mass transit devices. But not one investment has been made in road infrastructure to and from the district-that element has been stagnant.

So your plea has been built, but look at the results from this investment: none of the 10,000 biotech jobs or others in a "job center". "Job Center" was a major selling point that Vera and Sam professed continuously for why we must spend over $290 Million (the actual total for all taxpayer money after debt, grants, other associated tax dollars being pumped into the URA is over $1.2 Billion) and more for SoWhat.

Your point is valid but I think the market isn't following the point, and we have many examples locally and otherwise that makes the point questionable.

It is interesting to note that we have been out-transited by of all places Bogota Colombia. For more information google trans-millenio Bogota...

South Waterfront is a great example of all the forces we're discussing colliding in a steaming heap of hubris. Look at it, for example, ans ask yourself these questions:

(1) Who is it for, really?
(2) Given the answer to #1, why are taxpayers footing the bill for infrastructure like light rail, a Tram(!), and extensive roadway and other infrastructural improvements?
(3) At what point do you consider the development a failure? Never?
(4) What (and whom) does that infrastructure serve while you wait to see if the development fails, and later if it *does* fail?

And perhaps a #5: Imagine buses and shuttles serving the same needs that the Tram and Streetcar now serve. Would it be worse, better, or the same? Which would cost more? And, which would be easier to modify or eliminate when (not if) conditions and plans change?

The problem with environmentalism in Oregon and especially Portland is that it is mostly in the nature of wish fulfillment for people who avoided all hard science classes and think that numbers are just tools of the oppressor classes.

Monbiot's "Towering Lunacy" is a good skewering of these types, which are the same ones who are promoting biofuels and high-speed rail when we can't even get regular, useful low-speed service:

http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/08/16/towering-lunacy/

At least the Limboobs who are trying to fry the planet get paid (exceedingly well) to be scientifically illiterate; people who claim to want to preserve a livable planet don't have any excuse for being equally innumerate.

Hey, I never said I was a light rail lover. I think buses are totally where it's at - I'm a bus rider myself now, and rode the bus everywhere (when I wasn't biking) when I lived in Portland. Light rail only works well for those who live within range of a light rail station (or those who are served by a frequent bus line that goes to a light rail station, if you want to be fair), which leaves out most of the population.

But if you've already got light rail, then you ought to be concerned about making sure there's affordable housing in that station radius. And if you're planning future transportation hubs (not just transit), then it needs to do the same, plus a good mix of uses. That's all I'm saying. Where I live, the kind of mixed-use and dense development I'm talking about is actually not even a possibility, due to the current land use policy environment. It would be nice to have the option, is all. And it's nice to have a variety of transportation options to choose from when you're deciding where and how you want to live.

Jennifer:But if you've already got light rail, then you ought to be concerned about making sure there's affordable housing in that station radius. . . .Where I live, the kind of mixed-use and dense development I'm talking about is actually not even a possibility, due to the current land use policy environment. It would be nice to have the option, is all. . .

Jennifer,
It might be nice to have an option but at what expense and at whose expense?

I think if you were to look at the whole picture, you might not want it in your community or see it as such a positive option overall.

There are always pleasing examples to show.
However, not all looks like the Pearl here.
There are places within our city that look like future ghetto affordable housing projects built along the light rail. These places are warehouses for people. These type of affordable housing projects, have no yards, not a deck to go outside for a few minutes or even to plant a tomato.

These projects devalue the surrounding neighborhoods and place stress upon a community, as not enough public safety, open space, schools. The crime stats around light rail ought to tell us there is something wrong with the plan.

Do the people living in these look upon this as a nice option?

Not trying to rain on your parade that this would all be nice, but when one uses the term "affordable housing", this generally now means subsidized housing. Many have the 10 year tax abatement that developers like. The term "affordable housing" has a mixed message as far as I am concerned, as it is different than "housing that is affordable" for people. In my view, Portland used to have "housing that was affordable" for people, and now much has been transformed - more "subsidized affordable housing" - not the same at all in my book.

We had/have answers to ecohumans #5 question. OHSU had bus shuttle service to SoWhat at the time the tram was being considered as an option. With the increased density, new uses in SoWhat, the projected bus shuttle costs were estimated between $900,000 to $1.1M.

The comparison study noted the benefits of the shuttle being able to pickup and drop off people between Pill Hill and SoWhat, serving more people. The ultimate hard cost of the tram being $67 Million, then adding all the other costs like debt, planning, competition and administrative, the total cost became $167 Million. Then considering the maintenance cost of the tram versus a bus shuttle system, the shuttle is a far better investment. And don't forget that the tram has to have a backup system for its breakdown and maintenance times-OHSU still has a bus shuttle system serving the area.

At least the Planners and Politicians of SoWhat should have considered using and maybe expanding OHSU's already existing shuttle system to SoWhat for a ten year or so period until SoWhat could actually develop some synergy, and then reevaluate the tram's need.


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Barry Glassner - The Gospel of Food
Phil Stanford - The Peyton-Allan Files
Jesse Katz - The Opposite Field
Evelyn Waugh - Brideshead Revisited
J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
David Sedaris - Holidays on Ice
Donald Miller - A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Mitch Albom - Have a Little Faith
C.S. Lewis - The Magician's Nephew
F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ivan Doig - Bucking the Sun
Penda Diakité - I Lost My Tooth in Africa
Grace Lin - The Year of the Rat
Oscar Hijuelos - Mr. Ives' Christmas
Madeline L'Engle - A Wrinkle in Time
Steven Hart - The Last Three Miles
David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day
Karen Armstrong - The Spiral Staircase
Charles Larson - The Portland Murders
Adrian Wojnarowski - The Miracle of St. Anthony
William H. Colby - Long Goodbye
Steven D. Stark - Meet the Beatles
Phil Stanford - Portland Confidential
Rick Moody - Garden State
Jonathan Schwartz - All in Good Time
David Sedaris - Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Anthony Holden - Big Deal
Robert J. Spitzer - The Spirit of Leadership
James McManus - Positively Fifth Street
Jeff Noon - Vurt

Road Work

Miles run year to date: 293
At this date last year: 145
Total run in 2013: 257
In 2012: 129
In 2011: 113
In 2010: 125
In 2009: 67
In 2008: 28
In 2007: 113
In 2006: 100
In 2005: 149
In 2004: 204
In 2003: 269


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