Archives for posts with tag: Light-Rail

 

Car Traffic

Fueled by an endless array of transportation options, global citizens are discovering new ways to get from point A to point B in their communities. This new “mobility mindset,” which embodies the twin characteristics of urban fluidity and efficiency, offers us the freedom to roam untethered to our daily connection points, with minimal reliance on cars.

In the fall of 2012 I was tossed into this paradigm head on after a full-on face plant in the mud divorce. No longer possessing permanent mobility of the four-wheel variety (we were a one-car family), I found myself suddenly confronted with the question of how one gets around without the luxury of being regularly able to put key in ignition. Lamenting the loss of convenience, I decided to make a study of alternative transportation options locally as well as in cities I frequented. What I discovered was a legion of common, everyday people like me who, possessing no car, have found creative ways to scurry to their intended locations, be it a place of employment, grocery store or another regularly frequented place.

As one of the premier mobility-friendly cities in the U.S., the Denver Metro Area offers the ideal ecosystem for assessing transportation resourcefulness. Despite opposing views by some lifelong area residents, the Mile High City’s transportation system is widely considered to be one of the most progressive in the nation. In fact, according to a U.S. News and World Report analysis, Denver was listed as the #1 city in terms of public transportation investment, ridership and safety in 2011. This distinction has undoubtedly been a major catalyst for the city’s robust economic and workforce development boom. Moreover a report by the public policy organization Brookings Institution ranked the Denver-Aurora area as having one of the nation’s most efficient systems for connecting companies to labor pools. The Regional Transportation District bus system in Denver (more commonly known as RTD) was my first foray into the life of a frequent bus rider.

Admittedly, I had long viewed bus ridership culture as one that is gritty and low-class. Unfortunately, this was somewhat reinforced when I took my first trip on what is known as the 15L bus, a route that services Colfax Ave, the main street traversing the Denver-Aurora area. Known in some local circles as the “Vomit Comet,” this bus regularly attracts a cast of shady characters and late night drinkers that would put the uninitiated rider in a very discomforting situation. Judgments aside, RTD buses serve as an invaluable conduit for connecting riders to their daily routines, including work, grocery shopping, school, and various activities.

I have generally found the drivers to be friendly as well as adept at navigating through what can be some rather challenging scenarios, be it traffic snarls or disrespectful patrons. And excepting days when there is severe inclement weather or an unanticipated accident, the buses generally tend to run on time.

Another key component of Denver’s RTD system is the light rail trains that service both North-South and East-West routes. The Lower Downtown district serves as the epicenter for local passenger rail traffic that flows continuously to regular stops throughout the Denver Metro Area nearly 24/7. In many ways, light rail is the root of the booming economic development that downtown Denver has experienced over the past 20 years. Transportation experts tout the valuable role it serves in terms of outskirt resident access to downtown activities, including dining, shopping, sporting events, festivals, the arts, and night clubs. Moreover, growing numbers of Denver residents are choosing to live downtown, where a massive residential construction uptick is in full bloom.

But the most significant news for alternative transportation junkies is what’s happening near the historic Union Station terminal. As a part of a $500 million public-private project, the station’s former rail yard is being carefully orchestrated into a 20-acre intermodal hub for the light rail, buses, taxis, Amtrak trains, as well as a commuter rail to Denver International Airport. Targeted for completion in late 2014, this transformation of the area will serve as a critical connection point to nearby commercial office buildings, apartments and public plazas. The airport accessibility component of this project holds particular significance, as it is central to Denver’s reputation as one of the top convention cities in the nation. This will allow the Mile High City to gain traction with other light rail-infused cities such as Atlanta (MARTA), Portland (MAX), Chicago (L), and Seattle (SeaTac) that provide an easy and convenient way to access downtowns from their airports.

High-functioning transit-oriented cities like Denver also recognize the importance of having a congruent interconnection between the various modes of transportation available. With the popularity of short-term car rental options like eGoCar, Economy Car, Hertz 24/7 and Car2Go, pickup locations are in abundance in Denver’s urban core, near housing centers and adjacent to light rail stations. This allows commuters a convenient, just-in-time medium of transport that keeps them on the move amidst their personal and professional demands.

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An option that I favor relative to the quick “hop in and go” mobility is the widely acclaimed transportation network Uber. This company connects you with a driver with a tap of a button on your smart phone. They pick you up via their GPS technology, drop you at your intended destination and then charge your credit card that they have registered on file.

Uber has had a disruptive impact on the transportation dynamics in cities like Denver, San Francisco, and Washington, raising the ire of local government regulators who see the popularity of this new service as an affront to local taxi drivers. Personally, I think its influence underscores the value of free market innovations that bring real value to a city in terms of competitively priced, efficient modes of transportation. And besides, contrary to the vehement arguments of these regulators, Uber is simply in the business of facilitating the connection between privately licensed drivers with riders. In the end this boost in business for limo companies and their drivers is good for the economy.

While car, rail and bus are the predominant means of mobility for most commuters, bicycling continues to show exponential growth in urban centers like Denver, Portland and San Francisco. My first experience in observing the viability of two-wheel transport was while living in Folsom, California, a bedroom suburb of the Golden State’s capital of Sacramento. It boasts one of the top biking communities in the nation, featuring some of the most efficient, well developed sets of bike lanes and arterials anywhere. I also had the pleasure of being employed in Davis, California, widely regarded as the bicycle capital of the U.S. This college town is brimming with a sea of bikes in a manner reminiscent of the urban center thoroughfares of China. And it has the distinction of being the first city in the nation to pilot and implement the now ubiquitous bike lanes.

The rise of the bicycling culture in Denver continues to reach new heights, undoubtedly due in part to its health-conscious ethos. Much of this has been buoyed by the emergence of B-Cycle, a smart technology bicycle-sharing system featuring solar-powered stations. First launched here in 2010 with 40 stations and 500 bikes, B-Cycle is now operating in more than 25 cities nationally.

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Given the effects of the economic downturn, many cost-conscious Americans are embracing nontraditional forms of mobility on a much larger scale. This is particularly true in geographically and demographically dense city areas, as they allow for easy connection points between destinations. Here in Denver, skateboarding has gone from extreme sport status to a viable means to get around. Motorized scooters also abound among low budget commuters.

And then there are the legions of walkers who trek miles every day from home to work to local amenities. Denver in fact is ranked #10 on a list of U.S. cities with the most walkable neighborhoods according to Walkscore.com. And the city ranks in the top five cities for walkability according the Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank. WalkDenver has even higher aspirations for the city with its initiative to make “The Mile High City” the most walkable in the nation. Hopefully they can “walk their talk” by fulfilling this ambitious vision. “The key elements of walk friendly cities include wide sidewalks as well trees, foliage, scenery and appealing stop off points along the way,” says James Shaffer, Board President of Walk Denver. “This involves an ongoing assessment of how urban space is being used so that we can look for ways make it more efficient, vibrant and engaging for walkers.”

The future of alternative transportation will continue to take shape as people become more aware of the myriad mobility options available to them. This is great news as it facilitates progress and change in how we navigate cities amidst traffic snarls and congestion. Being untethered opens up new possibilities for how we interact with our communities, families and friends. It allows us freedom to keep moving in a world that increasingly requires us to be fluid and flexible.

 

Michael Scott is a Denver-based urban futurist, writer and researcher. He can be reached at urbanvisionary@gmail.com

Trains have long been a fascination for me. I recall boyhood trips with my dad and brother to Union Station in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to buy the Sunday edition of The New York Times. If I was lucky, a locomotive followed by unending train cars would come rumbling through at the same time—with the much-anticipated caboose serving as the highlight of my entire weekend  As a teenager, I experienced my first passenger-train ride, traveling pleasantly from the aforementioned Ohio station to my Florida destination.

Thirty-five years later, my interest is now focused on a rapidly emerging form of transportation called light-rail. Gliding along at street level at a lower capacity and speed than heavy rail, these trains are touted by many transportation advocates as the wave of the future. Typically part of a larger transportation network, light-rail systems are designed to provide point-to-point connections to passengers locally and regionally.

Ridership interest in light-rail slowly continues to gain traction across the U.S., with the American Public Transit Association reporting a respectable 0.57% increase in passenger trips this year. Much of this uptick is attributed to the surge in gas prices that we’ve seen over the past several years, leading many to seek out more cost-effective commuting options. Moreover these electrified trains emit little or no pollution while protecting our nation’s energy independence in a competitive world, causing growing numbers of American’s to see light-rail travel as the essence of a green, progressive life.

As awareness grows about the benefits of light-rail, cities nationwide are bellowing the words “all aboard” relative to new passenger lines. The pioneering work of Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority (MARTA), the San Francisco region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the MAX line in Portland, and the Metro in Washington, D.C. have influenced cities like Charlotte, Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City to implement light-rail systems.

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The MAX Light-Rail in Portland, OR

Norfolk, Virginia’s sleek new light-rail project, “The Tide,” is scheduled to open in 2010. The west side of town will anchor one end of the line, running 7.4 miles through Norfolk and ending in its sister community of Virginia Beach. Excitement also is high in the Phoenix metro area where a 20-mile line with 28 stops commenced in December 2008. Early returns show the line is generating 60% more riders than originally projected — a much-needed shot in the arm for businesses and retailers in downtown Phoenix.

With those statistics in mind, what’s the likelihood of light-rail becoming the transportation option of choice among a larger share of Americans?  To gain a better perspective on this question, I have become a frequent passenger on a light-rail line running from Sacramento to Folsom, where I reside. This experiment is part of my simultaneous pursuit of a car-free lifestyle — a decision I am discovering creates a number of logistical challenges for those wedded to public transportation.

My morning commutes into Sacramento start at 6:40 a.m. with a short trek to the light-rail station in downtown Folsom, either by bus or bicycle. While I prefer the bus option, particularly if I have a meeting where a shirt and tie is needed, I am becoming more amenable to the idea of cycling to the station, as I can take my bike with me on the light-rail train to ease my access to locales downtown.

Sacramento Light-Rail

Sacramento Light-Rail

That being said, I have couple of brief observations.  First, while purchasing a ticket should be easy the process feels daunting at times due to frequent malfunctions with the machines. The convenience of buying a full-day ticket on the bus trip to the Folsom station is another reason why this I prefer the this option in the morning over my bike.

Then there is the issue of costs. Ticket-fare increases on light-rail lines are a nationwide reality, which creates an interesting conundrum: Passenger loads continue to increase amid squeezed regional transit agency budgets — a scenario evident in Sacramento, where passengers find themselves paying more for less comfortable rides. Then there is the chicken-or-the-egg question of fare enforcement; namely, the lack of transit officers checking tickets due to budget constraints while simultaneously dealing with lost revenues from those taking advantage of the system.  Tickets are checked only once out of every fifteen rides I make on light-rail — a boon for blatant fare avoiders or those who are economically challenged due to the recession.

People watching is also an interesting endeavor while on light-rail. Armed with an undergraduate degree in sociology, I’m particularly captured by the diversity and social interactions that are a part of the public transportation culture.  All in all, a broad mosaic of the Sacramento’s socioeconomic strata rides light-rail throughout the day, some with questionable mental states.

One of my recent discoveries about downtown Sacramento is a growing cadre of light-rail enthusiasts who hold the secret code of how to navigate the Sacramento Regional Transit maze. One look at the hieroglyphic light-rail map and schedule and it becomes quickly apparent that newbies would greatly benefit from a tutorial. I found myself befuddled one afternoon after discovering that my appointed location for catching the train home had been moved unceremoniously. After sorting through advice from a disparate set of strangers, I was finally able to identify my designated departure location.

Several well-heeled suburban riders have advised me to take the train only during the morning and evening rush hours, as thugs are less likely to be onboard then. This perception of light-rail danger among suburbanites is surprisingly common. Moreover it often surfaces in communities where new light-rail plans are being discussed, serving as a reason for either not moving forward with the project or limiting it. This is true in my own suburban area, where the last light-rail train to Folsom leaves Sacramento at 6:15 pm. The skewed logic seems to be that criminals are more likely to ride several miles to Folsom in the evening hours, break into a house, and then try to get back on light-rail with their loot in tow.

These sorts of ridiculous mindsets create the barriers to fully integrating light-rail as a transportation option of choice. Many of the residents in my community rarely visit downtown Sacramento by public transportation or car, unless it’s for work. The limited evening hours also hinder suburban residents from enjoying the downtown Sacramento nightlife, including the opportunity to have a drink or two without worry of having to drive home afterward. Many of the struggling Sacramento venues would greatly benefit from the infusion of suburban dollars.

As a result of my experiences here in the Sacramento region as well as in other cities like Portland, I’ve come to five conclusions about light-rail:

1. It’s a viable transportation option as long as funding is available to ensure its success. Budget shortfalls equal light-rail stagnation. Building and maintaining a light-rail system is an expensive prospect, therefore a return-on-investment is a necessary part of the equation. Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute says an average mile of light-rail line costs two to five times as much as one mile of an urban freeway lane. He cites as an example the Portland MAX light-rail line, which has spent more than $2.3 billion—half of the region’s capital funds for transportation—but carries less than one percent of Portland’s travelers.

2. Light-rail or any current form of public transportation is not a substitute for cars. As a number of transportation experts attest, we have to remain mindful of the “Prius Effect,” where energy-efficient cars potentially undercut the appeal of public transportation options like light-rail. Moreover, urban sprawl may make the convenience of light-rail too logistically difficult without the availability of cars. Moving past this conundrum requires the pursuit of more cooperative partnerships between light-rail and advocates of alternate forms of transportation, such as bicycle groups and private companies like Zipcar, which offers on-demand, short-term auto rentals for car-free enthusiasts.

3. The biggest influencers on light-rail ridership will continue to be traffic jams and rising fuel costs. The trump cards for light-rail will be convenience and safety. Addressing the latter two items will help overcome the former two complaints.

4. Light-rail must take a page from the coffeehouse book and get on the Wi-Fi bandwagon. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority in San Francisco is among several national transit systems that have announced plans to offer Wi-Fi access to commuters. BART’s initiative, projected to be completed in 2011, will offer high-speed mobile access for 104 miles of track and 43 stations. Rumor has it that some Bay Area employers may offer work-hour credit to their employees for being online and actively working during their light-rail commute.

5. As light-rail gains popularity, there will be a correlating increase for more train manufacturing and maintenance facilities. Good news on the jobs front, as our nation crawls out of the recession. One company is already making its mark in this area: Siemens. It has the only permanent light-rail manufacturing facility on U.S. soil. In fact, one out of every three North American light-rail vehicles is produced at the company’s Sacramento plant, and its list of cities served is impressive: Denver, Salt Lake City, Houston, Charlotte, Norfolk, Edmonton, Calgary, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. Siemens offers more good news: plans to add upwards of 200 jobs in the next 18 months.

The future of light-rail is rife with possibilities in terms of growth and sustainability. What remains certain is its place at the table when discussions turn to economic and environmental benefits to society.