Thinking outside the Right-of-Way

There has been recent controversy about the Southwest LRT and its recent costs. (See Twin Cities Business for a nice write-up). I suggested in the comments that it might be cheaper to buy the Twin Cities and Western Railway company (presumably take the track rights, settle this controversy and then sell off the rest) than pay to accommodate them. But I have no idea what it is worth. I do have an estimate of its size, in terms of number of employees from their website.

We do have data on much larger public railways. I estimated the ratio of market value to number of employees, and then took the average ratio and multiplied it by the number of TC&W employees. (This is the market value each employee adds, and is loosely correlated with market value in mature industries, there are better more complicated estimates, but this is a blog post).

This gives a number just about $100M, which sounds ballpark. (I suspect it is too high, since there should be economies of scale in the larger Railroads) This is cheaper than some of the estimates for accommodating it. The long-term cost to the public would be less than this, since the parts that were not needed could be sold off.

Planners and public officials need to think outside the Right-of-Way (Box).

Railroad Number of Employees Market Value Ratio
CSX 32000  23,700,000,000 740625
UP 46787  74,170,000,000 1585269
NSC 30943  42,120,000,000 1361213
CP 15112  26,620,000,000 1761514
Twin Cities and Western RR 80  108,972,420  ESTIMATED

A second comment I had was about sharing track rights. There should be some way for the LRT and the freight railway to share tracks, given how few freight trains run per day and how slow they are. People say FRA won’t allow it. I am sure they won’t. On the other hand, this is what politicians are for, to grant exemptions. And for well less than $100 million, I am sure someone can be persuaded to grant an exemption.

How much did the lobbying for the St. Croix River Crossing cost?

Cost per Daily Passenger Mile

Yesterday I posted cost per rider. This of course is biased against long trips, since one of the things a transit service does is move people distances. Moving longer distances may be more valuable (on the other hand, we don’t want to subsidize longer trips). Another simple calculation is presented, this time, dividing cost by daily passenger miles. Since I don’t know the trip lengths on the various modes (even if I had the forecast models, I doubt it), I use the APTA Fact Book, which gives what I think are reasonable estimates. I made up the Red Line number, since they didn’t have Commuter Bus, but otherwise these seem plausible. [If someone has actual data on this, please chime up, I will gladly update the spreadsheet]. Notably, (and not surprisingly) the rankings change slightly (SWLRT comes out worse than Northstar and the Red Line by this metric). The general conclusion does not (arterial BRT is still more cost effective). Sources of data are given in yesterday’s post, or are wikipedia.

Another criticism is that the cost are more than just required for transit, and include things like park and ride and roadway reconstruction. I agree. Blame the funders, I am using their data to describe the project.

A third criticism is that ridership will go up over time. This may or may not occur, but if you believe it will, you can adjust accordingly.

More importantly these critiques apply to all of these projects to a greater or lesser extent, and might bend the numbers, but don’t change the fundamentals.




Line Length

Trip Length

Cost per Rider

Cost per Daily Passenger Mile

Red Line





















Green Line







Blue Line







Snelling aBRT







Trip Length estimates from:
APTA Fact Book Table 7

Walking Distances


We often use 1/4 mile (400 meters for my SI-using allies) as the walk-shed for transit. This is too short. See e.g. these graphics from the Snelling Arterial BRT study, which draws radii around stops. 1/4 mile does not even get you from one end of Rosedale Mall (which isn’t even the biggest Mall in the Twin Cities) to the other, and many people make a full circuit, on two floors, inside the mall, on foot. If we have nice enough environments, we should expect people to walk a 1/2 mile to 1 mile with no problem, shopping mall developers do, and they are far more mercenary than the public sector.

Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.
Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.

A longer assumed walk-shed has many advantages. It allows us to increase spacing between stops, which increases running speed, which makes transit more attractive for those already on-board. We always trade-off running time for access time (higher access time for lower running time, e.g. when we space stops farther apart.)

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit, discusses the issue and notes that in many urban areas there is no need to walk farther than 400 m, so we don’t know what people would do. He also notes the difference between radiuses and network distances.

Schlossberg and Agrawal also discuss this in: How Far, By Which Route, and Why? A Spatial Analysis of Pedestrian Preference. They find the average pedestrian trip to a rail station was 0.47 miles (nearly 800 m). Guerra, Cervero, and Tischler ask “The Half-Mile Circle: Does It Best Represent Transit Station Catchments?” and argue it is useful (and a slightly better predictor) for the residence end of trips, though shorter distances (1/4 mile) at the work-end makes are slightly better predictors.

In short, I believe people will walk longer than we typically credit if we can make decent walkable urban environments, environments which lead people to under-estimate the actual time involved (as the saying goes: time flies when you are having fun) because their mind is not on how awful the walk is, but about how interesting the environment is.