Saint Paul Circle Line

The Iron Law of the Twin Cities is that if Minneapolis has something, Saint Paul gets one too (and vice versa). The examples are numerous (arenas, campuses of the University of Minnesota, branches of I-35, chapters of the American Automobile Association, and so on).
In a previous post I posited a Minneapolis Circle Line . Of course Saint Paul would want to get in on the action.

I have drawn two possible fixed route, exclusive(ish) right-of-way transit lines (an Inner Circle and an Outer Circle), along with the already planned Central Corridor. I have not shown other possible lines, presumably radial, that would extend from Saint Paul (one imagines one on 7th Street/Fort Road to the southwest, a streetcar along Grand Avenue, something along Robert Street to the South, something to the west, northeast, and northwest.

The Inner Circle follows the Central Corridor line beginning at Marion Street but continues on University past the Capitol, past Regions Hospitalacross I-35E to Lafayette Road, goes south down Lafayette Road across I-94, and runs behind the proposed St. Paul Saints stadium through Lowertown, meets the Central Corridor again at Union Depot, and then jogs over to Kellogg Boulevard to run past RiverCentre, Xcel Energy Center, the Science Museum, the History Center, near the Cathedral, and up Marion Street back to University Avenue. It would serve re-developable areas near Lafayette road and Marion Street, and major attractions in the city.

The Outer Circle I have broken into two sections for convenience: North and South.
The Outer Circle (north) begins at the Dale Street station on the Central Corridor, runs north to the Pierce Butler route corridor, and goes east parallel the existing railroad tracks, behind the Minnesota Transportation Museum, across I-35E, and then south to University Avenue where it meets the Inner Circle alignment. It serves
The Outer Circle (south) also begins at the Dale Street station, runs south to Summit Avenue (I assume it would share right-of-way with the “Grand Avenue” streetcar should such a thing exist), proceed down Summit Avenue, to Ramsey Street, past United Hospital, serving the West Seventh area. It would turn south on Smith Avenue, cross the Mississippi River, to George Street, serving the West Side. It would proceed East on George Street to Cesar Chavez Street, and then Ada Street. It would cross the Lafayette Freeway and run along the edge of the St. Paul Airport. Here is the expensive part: a new river crossing would need to be constructed to get from the south to the north banks of the Mississippi River. The line would climb up Mounds Boulevard, serving Dayton’s Bluff and Metropolitan State University, and then run southeast along 7th Street/Fort Road, to the Inner Circle.

Rings make the most sense in the context of existing (or future) radials, allowing cross-traffic in cities and shortening travel times for those not going downtown. Given that St. Paul CBD has about 3% of the region’s employment (~40,000 jobs) (1990 statistics), new systems should not focus exclusively on such a small market, but should better help travelers reach diverse destinations across the city.

Reflections on the Streetcar of Portland

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Riding for a conference from the Portland airport to Portland State University on Light Rail Transit (LRT) and then streetcar gave me time to reflect on the Elysian Fields of transportation engineering, the Nirvana of networks and nexi.

Portland, Oregon is one of the major battlegrounds in the mode wars (car vs. transit and the internecine rail vs. bus). It has since the 1980s been held up by planners as the exemplar American city that does almost everything right. The foremost thing they do right in the view of the planning establishment is promoting LRT and bicycling.

The fascination with rail transit in particular (especially as compared with bus) was something I have never quite grokked. As a rational observer with formal training in transportation, I have had a hard time understanding the emotional relationship people have with rail. Why do people like LRT more than bus? Is it simply how we operate them, or that it is modern capital, or is there a psychological benefit associated with deterministic tracks vs. widely diverging roads? There are lots of theories on the matter, I will identify a few below.

  1. Ride quality. The quality of the ride on an LRT is smoother and less herky-jerky than a bus, and passengers have a nicer facility.
  2. Navigability. It is hard to navigate current US bus systems, while the fewer number of rail lines are fairly easy to figure out. Because trains cannot steer, they cannot get lost the way a bus can.
  3. Speed. Trains are faster than local buses, especially if they have their own right of way and few stations.
  4. Permanence. I can make a permanent investment decision based on the location of rail lines, as the transit system is committed to this line, while a bus line may be temporary.
  5. Nostalgia. People who like LRT recall (or wish they could recall) the immediately post-World War II America when streetcars were at a maximum. 1946 was a magical period in US history, a boom following the long depression, when streetcar networks if not at a maximum were really close. (Coupled with a conspiracy theory about their removal)
  6. Sexuality. This is part of the theory presented by Jonathan Richmond’s in his book Transport of Delight and earlier paper The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. The image of the train entering the tunnel clearly evokes a primal response.

There are logical rejoinders for the first four (though not the nostalgia or sexuality argument I suppose), the most obvious is that if you spent the kind of money you are spending on rail on buses instead, and operated them better, buses would be quite nice. Navigability could be improved with a bit of thought (and trains can divert), while permanence of the last generation of streetcars (1887-1954) clearly was temporary.

The theory I have now adopted comes from my recent trip from Minneapolis to Portland accessing the airport at both ends via LRT, and then riding the Portland streetcar almost full circle. Rail transit forms an urban superstructure. Guideway transit, esp. LRT makes the city more like a single structure, and makes everything seem closer. The LRT vehicle is continuously running, and if activities are along the path of the vehicle, everything seems quite coordinated. In a way by organizing activities linearly (or multi-linearly), it simplifies the city. Hopping on a train is much like getting on an elevator.

LRT, like walking indoors, keeps you enveloped within civilization, while walking, biking, or driving is a frontier experience, you alone in the wilderness. (And bus falls in-between). We can posit that distances within buildings seem shorter than distances between buildings (Some literature along the notions of this idea exist, see Tversky, but it is not directly on point). Distances connected by the urban superstructure will likely feel closer than those which are not so connected. Walking through a modern airport, or the Minneapolis Skyway, will tell you enveloped distances can be quite large, but still not feel as large as leaving one building into nature for another.

Preferences for civilization or frontier-crossing (or degree of each) vary across individuals. Driving of course places you in a machine, but you, not civilization, are operating the machine, so just as driving is freedom, not everyone wants that freedom to drive, they may prefer freedom from driving. The extent to which you believe in the importance of community over individuals (or vice versa) will affect your perception of the issue.

( LRT may also be more popular than traditional underground subway (Metro) systems. People of course like being able to walk out the door and step onto a train more than having to descend through the gates of hell, Metro to get to the underground subterranean system. There are many reasons, not least of which is the extra time and energy required to so descend. The advantages in principle are faster point to point travel time, but that depends on the access cost vs. the in-motion speed. )

Transit invokes further passions because of the positive feedback loop between ridership, revenue, and route frequency, especially where transit is weak as in much of the US. My riding transit creates a positive externality for you (more riders, shorter headways, and more routes), so of course if you ride transit, you want to impose your preference on me. It is only selfishly rational. Further cars use scarce roadspace. While similar feedback loops may exist on the highway side (more drivers means more closely spaced roads), congestion mitigates that and the network is largely built out, so drivers do not feel the same need to impose their modal preference on the transit riding minority. Finally, drivers may benefit in the short term if other drivers take transit. (Where transit is already congested and frequent, additional riders produce few positive externalities as diminishing returns set in).

With rail, you know where you’re going, … NOT

In the previous entry “On ‘A Streetcar Named Development'”, I noted ‘The more important concern is revealed by the closing quote from Teresa Wernecke, director of the Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization. ‘“With rail, you know where you’re going,? Wernecke said.’
I am here to tell you, that in London, on rail, you don’t know where you are going. Yesterday, returning home from Imperial College on the District Line, I boarded the Wimbledon-bound train at the South Kensington Station. The District Line roughly forms an 3–C Shaped network (all distorted though), The Edgware Road branch and the City branch come together at Earl’s Court (the two branches of the “C”), and then lines split again for Wimbledon, Richmond, and Ealing (the three prongs of the the “3”).
Well, before the train reaches Gloucester Road station, the conductor announces the train has been redirected to Ealing Broadway, and all passengers bound for Wimbledon (or points in-between) needed to change trains at Earl’s Court.
While this is not a big deal, walking from one train on the platform to another across the platform, it created a lot of confusion. Native Londoners were asking me (a newbie) what was going on.
Those dynamically rerouting the trains had a good reason for this (another Wimbledon-bound train was already at the Earl’s Court platform, one for Ealing must have been held up somewhere upstream), trying to balance service or flow of trains.
If this had only happened once, one might say, “that’s strange”. But in two months of semi-regular commuting this is the third time this has happened. I missed the announcement once and had to backtrack. This does not happen with buses.
The point is that (A) when you have a complicated system, this creates opportunities to dynamically reroute (on a single line system, the exercise would be meaningless), and (B) there is not something inherently more secure or informative about rail over bus, and may be found more on rail than on buses (I have yet to be on a bus which suddenly changed which route it was traveling on).