“How to build good cities,” from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s ‘A Country of Cities.’
Well, that was fast.
Based on the heft of my gift, I expected to take more time to read through Vishaan Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities. The book, however, is wonderfully illustrated and laid out, thanks to Chakrabarti’s firm, SHoP (for a sampling of the illustrations and an essay adapted from the book, see Chakrabarti’s piece in Design Observer). All those illustrations make a hefty book into a rather quick read.
Chakrabarti paints a wonderful picture of the virtues of dense, urban places. Hyperdensity isn’t so hyper anything, merely the kind of density sufficient to support subway transit. While his vision of and advocacy for dense cities is persuasive, Chakrabarti’s specific policy recommendations are not new: massive investments in urban-focused infrastructure (subways, transit, high speed rail) as well as a more broadly defined “infrastructure of opportunity” of schools and parks. This would be financed by eliminating subsidies for oil, utilizing revenue from cap and trade of carbon emissions, and eliminating the mortgage interest deduction. He proposes to allow the market to provide additional housing and density that can support expensive transit infrastructure via the implementation of “cap and trade zoning.”
After reading the book, however, the original criticism remains: feasibility. I find Chakrabarti’s call for density persuasive, but I wouldn’t shape the message with terms like ‘hyperdensity.’ His ideas on reforming the zoning process are interesting, yet the basic mechanisms for reform are difficult to execute. DC is closing in on year seven of a zoning regulations review - and the proposed revisions focus mostly on structural changes and do not take on the task of upzoning. In the meantime, the unintended consequences of existing planning and zoning procedure are adding up.
Any conversations about re-shaping the city (and removing certain legal constraints such as DC’s federal law against tall buildings) aren’t focused on the benefits of hyperdensity, but on the required procedural changes and need to amend DC’s comprehensive plan for future upzoning to take effect. At the same time, WMATA is pushing a concept for additional subway capacity at the core of the system. Their efforts are constrained by regulations that link land use plans to transportation investments, thus Metro can only plan new subway lines in the limited areas already designated for what Chakrabarti would call hyperdensity.
Linking land use intensity and transportation investment is a good idea, but codifying the concept into regulations opens the door for unintended consequences. The chicken can’t happen without the egg, the transit agency can’t plan subways without supportive land use, the planners need infrastructure before they can add density. The idea of connecting transit to land use isn’t the problem. The challenge is in implementing the concept, adjusting the regulations, and amending the procedures that shape how we build cities.
More federal funding for infrastructure isn’t a novel idea, either – but the prospect for action from Congress seems unlikely at best. Similarly, phasing out the mortgage interest deduction isn’t a new idea, either – but it seems to hold sacred status on Capitol Hill.
This isn’t to discount Chakrabarti’s ideas. His argument for urbanism is persuasive, the broad brushstrokes of his policy agenda are fine. However, the procedural, legal, and political changes required to implement the agenda are missing. Consider the comparison of affordable housing and rental apartments in suburban New Jersey to suburban Long Island: it’s hardly an embrace of hyperdensity, nor is it an unvarnished success, but the limited improvements in adding density and fighting against exclusionairy zoning in New Jersey are the product of legal battles, not a comprehensive plan or master design. The same argument can apply to city building in general, where the future may lie in selling people on the need for more permissive rules/regulations and letting cities evolve, rather than simply selling them on the benefits of hyperdensity.
The real question, however, is if we’d ever see such legal and regulatory battles without this kind of manifesto to rally around.
(note: the book has been added to the reading list)
Integrating retail uses into transit stations presents several opportunities for transit agencies like WMATA looking to increase ridership and revenue. Such retail uses also have the potential to help development projects around stations, providing a key link between the transit station and the surrounding TOD.
Combining retail and transit isn’t exactly a new idea; train stations have often been retail hubs. They provide a node that attracts potential customers like a magnet. Rapid transit with full grade-separation is an additional layer for a city’s transportation network. Shifting passengers between the street layer and the rapid transit layer both requires space (e.g. a station) and creates the opportunity to enhance that space with amenities.
In-station retail offers obvious financial benefits, including a key revenue stream for agencies looking to diversify beyond fares alone. In-station retail also provides an amenity for passengers. The retail itself doesn’t need to be wholly contained within the station, either. Retail spaces can be integrated into station structures and transit agency property while improving the urban design of the area and drawing in non-transit customers.
Revenue: In-station retail offers a potential revenue stream for transit agencies. It won’t be a major revenue stream compared to fares, but it can be significant. Looking to Hong Kong’s MTR, famous for integrating development into and around transit stations, in-station retail (separate from MTR’s malls and other properties) generates approximately $270 million annually for MTR.
Obviously, Hong Kong’s real estate market is unique, and such results won’t necessarily scale in other places. However, other transit providers do pull significant revenue from renting space. Transport for London earned $95 million in gross rental income in 2013. In percentage terms (1.3% of of TfL revenue) it might not seem that different from WMATA, but consider TfL’s very high farebox recovery and low operating subsidy as well as additional revenue from London’s congestion charge.
London is also interested in increasing revenue from in-station retail, taking advantage of the real estate assets they have and the number of passengers passing through. The desire to grow non-transport revenue isn’t unique to transit agencies, either. For example, consider the desire of airports such as Dulles to grow and diversify their revenues, both as a hedge against business cycles and as a means to improve the experience of passengers.
Passenger Experience: In-station retail isn’t all about revenue, it’s also about improving the experience for passengers. For airports and mainline rail stations, this is a given. Even the FTA’s own joint development guidance recognizes the different retail needs for intercity transit stations.
Some of the recent renovations to Rotterdam Centraal show the opportunities to integrate retail into the main concourse of a rail station. The station renovation widened many platforms, all of which are connected by a single connecting concourse below grade. The wide platforms are not only comfortable for passengers waiting for their trains, but also ensure enough space on the concourse level between stairways for substantial retail.
Mezzanine level retail spaces in MTR’s Kowloon Bay station. CC image from Wiki.
Station retail focused on passengers can work for regular rapid transit, as well. In Hong Kong, MTR’s in-station retail includes both street-fronting retail bays as well as indoor spaces within the stations, targeting passengers as they make their way from the street to the platform. The type of retail in stations isn’t particularly exciting; convenience stores, bank branches, dry cleaners, and quick service food joints. These are nonetheless useful retail establishments, particularly for regular commuters.
Retail in the mezzanine/ticket hall of the Saint Lazare Metro station in Paris. Photo by the author.
Retail can be retrofit into existing stations as well. In Paris, several Metro stations include small retail spaces, often in the mezzanine. Similar to London’s plans to grow revenue via additional retail offerings, the spaces reserved for old (and now unnecessary) ticket booths can be converted into retail.
Urban Design: In-station retail isn’t just about providing money to the transit agency or convenience to the passengers. It also provides the opportunity to seamlessly connect the layers of the city – the street-level to the rapid transit system.
In London, many of the Underground’s sub-surface stations include a substantial headhouse with a presence on the street. Old steam-powered lines of the District Railway were built via cut and cover construction and kept near the surface with periodic open cuts to provide ventilation. The District Railway (now part of the Underground’s Circle and District lines) also didn’t follow existing street rights of way.
Aerial of Earl’s Court Station. Note the railway in the open cut and the station buildings above the tracks, presenting an unbroken street wall along Earl’s Court Road. Image from Google Maps.
Earl’s Court Underground station along Earl’s Court Road, with street-facing retail. Image from Google Streetview.
Tunneling outside of existing street rights of way along with the use of open cuts for the tracks means that the stations are structurally similar to liner buildings along overpasses. Earl’s Court station provides a good example, where the station’s headhouse and other development above the tracks creates an unbroken street wall for pedestrians, as well as retail spaces fronting the street within the old station headhouse.
This arrangement benefits all parties. TfL gets rental revenue from retail tenants. Retailers are leasing a space not just focused on Underground passengers, but with street-facing access for pedestrians walking nearby. The station’s architecture meshes seamlessly with the surrounding neighborhood. The rail infrastructure has a relatively large footprint, but you wouldn’t know it from walking down the street.
Lessons: WMATA’s proposed FY15 budget includes a limited amount of operating revenue from joint development; other presentations from the agency indicate an annual revenue stream of approximately $15 million dollars. In the context of a $3 billion budget, that’s not a lot.
In terms of urban design, in-station retail need not be limited to stations. Elevated structures around the world show the possibilities for integrating transit infrastructure into good urban design – and it’s not all about minimizing the footprint of the rail infrastructure.
WMATA is currently shopping several joint development opportunities to developers and potential partners, most of which take advantage of existing land-intensive uses (bus bays, surface parking, and some plain old vacant land) next to existing stations. Given the relatively large footprint of the entrances to the new stations in Tysons Corner and Reston for WMATA’s Silver Line, there’s an opportunity to mesh this kind of joint development into future expansion projects from the start. Comstock’s Reston Station development is a good start.
This isn’t just an opportunity for additional ridership or revenue, but can also serve as a catalyst for quality transit-oriented development.
Aerial view of Toronto. CC image from rene_beignet.
One of the books I picked up through the rounds of exchanging holiday gifts is Vishaan Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. I’ve read an excerpt of the book published in Design Observer and watched Chakrabarti’s accompanying lecture; I’m looking forward to reading the full book.
In my initial reaction to the book’s excerpt embraced the praise for dense, urban, transit-supportive cities, but expressed concern about the political and regulatory hurdles to achieving such a vision. In particular, the ‘hyperdensity’ terminology Chakrabarti used to describe levels of density that can support subway transit seemed like it could directly antagonize citizens skeptical of change – citizens that currently hold the upper hand in many of the procedural and regulatory battles over new development.
Consider some of the reactions in Toronto. This op-ed from Marcus Gee in the Globe and Mail echoes Chakrabarti’s praise for urban density, but also shows the risk of the ‘hyperdensity’ terminology:
A spectre is haunting Toronto – the spectre of hyperdensity. Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s dynamic chief planner, worries about it. So does one of Toronto’s smartest local politicians, city councillor Adam Vaughan…
[T]he city’s Official Plan seeks to direct new development – office buildings, condo towers and so on – to key areas of the city, fostering the process known in planners’ jargon as intensification. The aim is to put new buildings on about a quarter of the city’s geographical area, keeping the three-quarters that is left – residential neighbourhoods, quiet, smaller streets – free from runaway growth.
As anyone can see from the thickets of development around nodes like Union Station or Yonge and Eglinton, it has been remarkably successful – too successful for some. “We have reached this exciting and terrifying tipping point where we are starting to question whether it could be there is something called too much density,” Ms. Keesmaat said. “There are some areas of the city where we are seeing too much density – hyperdensity – and there are other areas of the city where we are seeing no growth at all.”
Here, the warnings about hyperdensity echo San Francisco’s concerns about “Manhattanization” – long-standing skepticism about growth and urban development with serious impacts on the city and region’s affordability over the past decade plus.
It would seem that Toronto’s plan is working exactly as intended: growth is channeled to some areas while it isn’t allowed to happen in others. Seeing little to no growth in areas of the city planned for little or no growth would all be according to plan.
This isn’t to say that the plan is wise. Trying to focus all growth in a city with high demand into downtown and a handful of mid-rise corridors might be too much of a constraint. It’s a strategy tailor-made to minimize conflict with the single-family neighborhoods, not dissimilar from Arlington County’s focus on Metro station areas while preserving single family homes nearby. It’s also one that bears a great deal of similarity to DC’s current discussions about how, how high, and where to grow. As Payton Chung notes, even this modest bargain is no guarantee to avoid conflict:
Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines — and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like around here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.
Nor does it guarantee the city can actually match supply to demand:
DC cannot put a lid on development everywhere — downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, on the few infill sites we have left — and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.
Something will have to give.
Toronto’s plan took the lid off in downtown, yet now the resulting development is derided as ‘hyperdensity.’ Marcus Gee notes that hyperdensity’s impact on infrastructure also provides the means to upgrade those facilities; build more transit; expand parks and urban amenities:
If the hyperdensity tag catches on, it could become a useful tool for downtown councillors who want to appease their constituents by blocking new development or for suburban councillors who want to steer more development to their wards even if there is no call for it there. It could also help kill exciting projects like the Frank Gehry-designed proposal by David Mirvish for King Street West. Ms. Keesmaat’s planning staff oppose the plan for three towers of more than 80 storeys each – too tall, too dense – and city council backed her up in a vote on Dec. 18.
It is reasonable to worry that new development will cause overcrowding on transit or overtax other city infrastructure. But if that is the concern, let’s build better transit to keep up with the growth, not halt the growth for fear of the future. Central Toronto is still far less dense than it could or should be. Hyperdensity should be a goal, not a thing to fear.
Emphasis added. This is the crux of my concern. How we frame the issue matters, even if the eventual solution won’t be about convincing the public of the virtues of hyperdensity and embracing it as a goal. Rather, achieving that goal will require reforming the processes and procedures for making decisions about land use and development.
I hope Chakrabarti’s book will touch on this; I look forward to reading it.
We still don’t have word on a start date for WMATA’s new Silver Line service to Tysons Corner, but more and more signage for the service is appearing in the rest of the system.
New signage, complete with (SV) bullets at Federal Center SW Station. Photo by the author.
This signage is from the platform pylon near the base of the escalators at Federal Center SW.
Via Twitter, Dan Malouff (@BeyondDC) took note of the new (SV) bullets on one of the narrow pylons used for Metro’s side platform stations, wondering if the bullets are using a different typeface from the rest of WMATA’s signage:
The answer is: sort of. The graphic standards (which I stumbled across via googling for this post) for the Rush Plus signage changes note that the bullets use Helvetica Bold, while the rest of the text uses Helvetica Medium.
Cranes. CC image from Daniel Foster.
The latest state-level population estimates show another year of 2%+ growth for DC, bringing the city’s estimated population to 646,449. Former Mayor Tony Williams set a goal in 2003 of adding 100,000 new residents to the city back when the city’s population growth was essentially nil, following decades of population decline.
Even in the relatively short history of this blog, nearing the symbolic 600k threshold prior to the 2010 Census was a big deal.
Of the growth in the most recent estimates, about 1/3 of the gains are from natural increases in the population (births minus deaths), while 2/3rds are from net migration (more people moving into the city from elsewhere than moving out).
Explanations for DC’s recent growth spurt that focus on Federal government spending are tempting, but misleading. The region’s overall growth rate since World War II is fairly consistent; what’s changing now is how that regional growth is allocating itself within the region. Chris at R.U. Seriousing Me shows how DC’s share of the regional population decreased from 1950 to 2010. The region’s growth trajectory has been upward, while the District’s population declined. However, if you assumed that DC maintained the same regional share of that growth throughout the last half-century, you’d find a DC today with 2.6 million people inside the city limits.
The counterfactual scenario is intriguing: assume a DC population of 2.6 million still governed by the federal height limit, and suddenly the comparisons of DC to Paris (low-rise with high population density) aren’t so absurd. Chris notes that for those opposed to even modest changes to the height limit or the construction of by-right buildings, the kind of development needed to accommodate 2.6 million people “must sound apocalyptic.”
Leaving the apocalypse aside for the moment, the 2.6 million resident scenario illustrates that you must not only have demand for growth, but allow that growth to happen – that is, allow the city’s housing supply to increase. Again, a comparison to Paris is illustrative: the Paris region has continued to grow, while the city’s population has somewhat declined and flattened out. It’s not hard to see why; the city’s legal and regulatory constraints on development do not provide room to grow within the city.
Mayor Gray, like Mayor Williams, set an ambitious goal for growth the District’s population: adding 250,000 new residents by 2032. Unlike in 2003, it’s not hard to see the demand for city living – in fact, we’re on pace to meet that goal right now. If the city were to continue to grow by 13,000 per year (as it has over the past three) over twenty years, DC will hit that mark.
Demand is only half of the equation, however. Michael Niebauer notes that the population gains justify the increased development seen around DC, and more will be needed to accommodate increased demand for living in the city. If city does not add supply, the demand will continue to put pressure on housing prices.
CC photo from Stephen Evans
This week, WMATA awoke to a nice present sitting under the tree. The first of the 7000 series railcars is here. These new cars will expand the fleet, increase the system’s capacity, and replace the oldest railcars in the system. All worthy ends, and all goals that the 7000 series will help meet.
However, like the economists pondering the economic inefficiency of Christmas, I can’t help but wonder what the 7000 series could look like if the gifts under the tree were exactly what you wanted. In that regard, the 7000 series design falls short. The good news is that there will be more railcar procurements in the near future.
The key shortcomings of the 7000 series are not technical (yet! we will need to see how they perform once in service), they are based on policy and assumptions about what a WMATA railcar is. Engineering-driven technical changes include a slight repositioning of the door locations and improved car body crash energy management.
At the same time, the assumption of the car design is to avoid changing the fundamental WMATA rail car concept (three doors per car, lots of seating for a commuter/metro hybrid). This means that the aesthetic changes to the 7000 series aren’t just about the end of Metro Brown. The altered door spacing and adherence to the original concept (three doors per car, three windows between each door) makes for awkward proportions – all in the name of leaving the original concept unexamined.
The good thing about assumptions is that they’re easy to change — once you change your mind. In California, BART struggles with the same legacy of operating a rapid transit/commuter rail hybrid. Despite the shortcomings of BART as a planning/construction agency, BART the operating agency is moving in the right direction. BART’s new rolling stock makes a couple of big changes, such as adding an additional door per car, embracing the rapid transit reality for the system.
Embracing the status quo is easy for any institution. That inertia is hard to overcome. Contrast BART’s changes to the most recent railcar procurement in Chicago, where the biggest changes are in the technical systems and seating layout.
I outlined some key ideas for the 8000 series in a previous post, but I wanted to put some numbers together to make the case for one of the most visible changes: wider doors, and more of them. The chart below summarizes the key dimensions from a selection of railcars:
A Google docs spreadsheet with the above data is available here.
I chose the cars on this list for a variety of reasons. I mentioned RATP’s MP-05, used on the now fully automated Line 1 in Paris, and Toronto’s Rocket in a previous post. BART’s inclusion shows both old and new cars, demonstrating what can be gained from change. Using BART as a comparison point for WMATA is also useful due to the similar age and history of the two systems. And, as a counterpoint of traditional mass transit, I included examples of relatively new cars from New York’s A and B division.
Each of these examples represents a somewhat pragmatic choice; I wanted to include others but could not easily find online specifications on door opening widths. Basic dimensions on car/train length is easy to find, but door opening width is harder. Transport for London is one exception, with excellent online information from the agency itself, rather than from third parties. London’s new S7/S8 cars would be a good example to include, but TfL has not yet updated their rolling stock information sheet to include them.
The table shows the impact of both the total number of doors, as well as the width of the doors. WMATA’s 50 inch doors are relatively narrow; all of the other examples are at least a few inches wider. The one exception is New York’s R160, but the R160 makes up for those narrow doors with overall numbers: Four door openings per 60′ rail car, compared to WMATA’s three doors per 75′ car. Each door on the MP-05 in Paris is 1.65 meters wide, showing how wide you can go – wider than WMATA by more than a foot.
The big reason to add doors is to improve/reduce station dwell time. The rightmost column illustrates the benefits of many wide doors: more space available to move between the train and the platform. When an 8-car WMATA train arrives at a platform, passengers must squeeze into 16.67% of the train to board/alight. Contrast that to the MP-05s used on Line 1 in Paris, where 32.9% of the train is available for passengers to pass through from train to platform. To put it another way, if WMATA wanted to offer that same permeability between the train and platform without changing door width, they would have to double the number of doors.
Line 1 in Paris is an exceptional case, where RATP is attempting to squeeze every last bit of capacity out of century-old tunnels. In the traditional rapid transit cases, each of the New York examples is greater than 25% door width to platform length. Toronto’s Rocket shows what WMATA would need to do to get to that standard: four doors per car, and modestly widen the doors to ~60′ per opening.
BART’s new rail cars won’t achieve the 25%+ of Paris, New York, or Toronto; but adding the third door to their new rail cars will beat WMATA at 19.3% and offer a substantial increase from the two-door model.
A simple re-evaluation of what WMATA’s assumptions about what a rail car is can go a long way towards the goal of maximizing the capacity of the existing system.
As WMATA prepares to take control of the first phase of the Silver Line from MWAA (with the exact handover date yet to be determined), signage for the new service is starting to pop-up around the system. WMATA is trying to raise awareness about the new service and new track with a dedicated website; you can see a presentation to the WMATA Board on their Silver Line activation plan here.
Some rail stations include strip maps on the station wall signage and on platform pylons. Others include backlit strip maps located above the on-platform map/advertising panels. In several stations, these maps have been updated with new Silver Line information:
Backlit westbound strip map above one of Metro’s platform ad panels at the Federal Triangle Station. Photo by the author.
Backlit eastbound strip map at Federal Triangle, including Silver Line to Largo. Photo by the author.
In recent months, WMATA has installed new wall signage in Blue/Orange stations. The signage included awkward spacing for the lines/destinations, preserving space for the future inclusion of Silver Line services:
New wall signage on the westbound track at Eastern Market, with room for Silver Line information below OR and BL. Photo by the author.
The current signage makes for an odd asymmetry, where the westbound signs clearly preserve space for a future (SV) bullet and destination below the current Orange and Blue line termini. The eastbound signs, however, looked more evenly spaced, perhaps anticipating the end of Orange Line ‘Rush Plus‘ service to Largo, to be replaced by Silver Line service. The revised sign will include a similar look to the eastbound strip map spotted at Federal Triangle.
The demise of at least some of the difficult-to-read striped Rush Plus bullets can’t come soon enough.
Eastbound wall signage at Eastern Market with ‘normal’ spacing; OR ‘Rush Plus’ service to Largo likely to be replaced with an SV bullet. Photo by the author.
The biggest drawback to any surface transit line is the inherent conflict at the surface with other modes: cars, bikes, pedestrians, etc. This is an inherent element of competing for the same real estate as other priorities. When space on the surface is simply overtaxed or too contested, urban transport networks can add layers – but usually with great expense. With their tramways, the French manage to blur the lines between upgraded legacy street-running tram networks and the American conception of light rail as a kind of rapid transit.
In France, transport planners work to maximize the efficiency of surface transit operations to provide cost-effective transit network expansion. Standardization and relatively low costs allow a wide range of cities (including the Paris region) to afford investments in new services.
Two of the Paris tramways illustrate the flexibility of the mode and the opportunities for efficient surface transit: The T2, operating on a repurposed rail right of way; and the T3, the first modern tramway in the city since the 1930s.
T2 at the Belvedere station. Note the alignment within the old rail right of way; La Defense skyscrapers in the background. CC image from Wiki.
Community gardening spaces in unused right of way adjacent to the Belvedere T2 station. Photo by the author.
The T2 Tramway makes use of old SNCF rail right of way, but uses trams to allow for surface-running extensions at both ends of the line. The old suburban rail line closed in 1993, with the replacement tram service beginning in 1997. The line has since been extended in 2009 (into Paris) and in 2012 (north of La Defense).
The line’s regular and frequent service has proven to be popular, carrying 115,000 riders daily. After blowing the initial ridership projections out of the water (as well as the ridership for the old suburban service that ended in 1993), the offering of frequent service along the same line (4 minute peak headways) shows what a difference a solid, frequent service plan can bring. In 2003, RATP had to lengthen the platforms (to 65m) to accommodate double-length trains.
Between the dedicated, mostly grade-separated right of way, platform/train length, and train frequency, the level of service comes as close to the Paris Metro (most Metro station platforms are 75m long, save for the busiest lines and key transfer points) as you can get while remaining on the surface.
Looking across the T2 platform to a Transilien train at Puteaux. The fence forces passengers to use the faregates to get on a Transilien service. Photo by the author.
The line’s heritage as a mainline railway is on display at the Puteaux station, where a cross-platform transfer is available to the L and U Transilien services. A fence along the platform forces those wishing to transfer to use faregates, meshing the tramway’s proof of payment system with the faregates found on the Metro, RER, and many of the suburban train stations.
The 2009 extension of the T2 brought the line into Paris, proper (incidentally, connecting to the T3 at Porte de Versailles, one of the areas of Paris slated to allow taller buildings), leaving the old SNCF right of way in favor of running on city streets. True to the standards established with other tramways, the trams are always given their own, dedicated right of way (often with grass tracks, both as a nice urban design touch and as a way to keep cars and trucks out).
Paris T3, showing street section with grass tracks. Photo by the author.
At Porte de Versailles, riders can transfer to the T3 line. The modern tramway takes advantage of wide Parisian streets. Station platforms provide ample space compared to the legacy platforms in Amsterdam; two lanes of traffic in each direction move freely; sidewalks are wide with ample space for walking. Unlike the T2, the construction of the T3 involved removing car capacity in favor of transit.
Stop spacing is fairly close by American standards, but not for Paris – 500m on average. Similar to the T2, trains operate every 4 minutes during peak hours. Compared to the previous bus service along the route (averaging 15 kph), RATP claims the T3 is faster, averaging 19-20 kph (about 12.5 miles per hour). By comparison, almost no WMATA bus routes in the core of DC get above 10 mph average in the AM rush hours, and the PM rush is worse.
Not only does the T3 represent an improvement in speed and reliability over previous bus services, but it also adds capacity over bus. Like the T2, the T3 is also popular, exceeding ridership estimates. Riders strain the system, and operating along the surface, adjacent to traffic presents risks to speed and schedule adherence, despite signal priority for transit. Perhaps fewer stations with wider spacing would provide for faster average speed, but aside from that kind of change, it’s hard to see how you could squeeze more out of surface transit than the T3.
At the same time, the T2 shows the flexibility of tramways, allowing for mixed operation on surface streets as well as dedicated, grade-separated right of way. Where well-placed existing right of way (like the T2) isn’t available, there is also the option of pursuing a Premetro strategy, taking advantage of incremental implementation of full grade separation. The same vehicles can be used in both schemes; allowing flexibility not usually available to a Metro system or suburban rail.
As impressive as the European subway and mainline rail networks are, recent expansions and improvements to surface transit networks are also noteworthy. Examples include upgrading legacy tram networks and building new networks on existing streets, as well as new uses for old mainline rail rights of way. Each example shows different methods of providing priority for surface transit.
In Amsterdam, the challenge is to provide priority for high-capacity modes along constrained city streets. The methods of providing surface transit priority complement efforts to create a pleasant walking environment and to preserve the city’s urban design and historic canal network. Together, these policies present a virtuous cycle – prioritizing transit, biking, and walking makes each of those modes more efficient and thus a better alternative to driving; which in turn lowers opposition to limiting the role of the car, making it easier to implement priority for surface transit.
Not all of this prioritization is the result of active choices; Amsterdam’s city streets vary tremendously in width. The city’s canals limit available street space, providing a natural limitation on cars within the historic city. Unlike other cities, Amsterdam largely did not remove its pre-war network of trams. Thus, the city retains the benefit of the old infrastructure network, but does not have the option of easily recrafting large rights of way with entirely modern tramways, as we see with modern tramways in France. Today, the network is extensive both inside and outside the historic city core.
Center-running tramway in Amsterdam. Photo by the author. Image links to Google Streetview of approximate location.
Within the historic core, many services often converge on a core trunk line located along the broad avenues without canals. In the case above, the trams use a dedicated, center-running transitway (many of Amsterdam’s older trams do not have doors on the left side of the vehicle). Passengers load from side platforms on islands in the street.
The remainder of the street cross-section (visible on the far side of the above photograph, and in Google Streetview) includes one travel lane and a bike lane in each direction. In the tree zone, several parking and loading spaces are included along the street. I witnessed several loading vehicles double-parked in the travel lane, but the physical divider between the transitway and the general traffic lane is low enough that a car can easily navigate around a loading vehicle; car traffic in general is low enough that this does not greatly congest traffic or transit.
Gauntlet track in Amsterdam’s Tram Network. Image from Google Streetview.
Other links in the network run perpendicular to the city’s rings of canals; old narrow streets sometimes require gauntlet track. These streets represent the Dutch movement towards shared environments; the rails and pavement tell pedestrians where the trams run, but pedestrians walk all along the street and move out of the way as trams pass. Car traffic is allowed, but generally limited to service/delivery vehicles without limiting transit service – an outcome possible due to the general limits on car traffic.
Amsterdam tram in mixed traffic, with floating bike lane and on-street bike parking. Photo by the author.
Other streets involve streetcars in mixed traffic. The example above shows the tram platform ‘floating’ away from the curb to allow the bike lane passage along the street (at the expense of sidewalk width). On the far side of the street, there is a painted bike lane (red/maroon) and extensive in-street bike parking. An older Google Streetview of the same location shows that space used for on-street car parking; it also shows the wider sidewalk (with enough room for two-seat tables in sidewalk cafes), thanks to the trams in the other direction utilizing a station just around the corner.
Dedicated tramway near the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Note the allowed taxi usage of the transitway. Photo by the author.
Where the space is available, trams are given dedicated right of way. This example, near the city’s Museumplein, features a center-running transitway, landscaped buffer, general traffic lanes and bike lanes differentiated by color. The image also demonstrates the city’s policy of allowing taxis to make use of transitways to speed the journeys of shared-use vehicles.
On-street parking is available, but it isn’t really on the street – parking occurs by the car mounting the angled stone curb in designated areas. In the immediate foreground of the image above, you can see the outlines of an empty parking space (designated by gray pavers). Thus, when not in use, the empty parking space becomes part of the sidewalk rather than part of the street.
All of these different kinds of prioritization (along with the famous Dutch investment in cycling infrastructure) come together to influence the city’s transportation behavior. One of the key slides in this presentation from Rene Meijer, deputy director of traffic and transport in Amsterdam, shows not just the city’s mode share, but also the varying mode share based on the distance of travel:
Mode share for Amsterdam residents, both pre trip and per km.
As you might expect, most trips are shorter trips; longer trips will require modes suited for longer trips (rail; transit; car). Walking comprises 24% of all trips, while only accounting for 2% of the distance covered.
Amsterdam Mode Share by trip distance.
Breaking trips into reasonable distances, you can see how each mode has strengths in certain distances. The white bars show walking dominating short trips (up to 1km), where biking then explodes. For longer trips in the window of 5km to 20km, transit (with priority) and car travel both grow. Also, while intercity rail and transit are presented as separate modes here, actual behavior may involve similar kinds of trips, thanks to the integration between the two modes within the Dutch rail network.
The chart does not differentiate between destinations; I would hypothesize that transit performs better for trips to destinations that are well-connected to the transit network, and the same is true for auto trips. The Netherlands have good highways, but they wisely do not penetrate the historic city core, nor would one volunteer to drive along Amsterdam’s canals when so many better options exist. Even at very long distances, the difference between trains and cars likely depends on differences in origin/destination: the kind of land use, the ease/difficulty of auto/transit access, and so on.
Just as the Dutch have invested in bikes and unsurprisingly end up with strong bike usage, the same can be said of transit. While the optimal distance of effectiveness for bikes and transit likely overlaps a great deal, Amsterdam shows ways to meet both goals.
While visiting Europe, I missed most of the local debate on potential changes to DC’s federally imposed height limit (see – and contrast – the final recommendations from the NCPC and DC Office of Planning, as well as background materials and visual modelling, here). But I sure didn’t actually miss any tall buildings; I saw lots of them in just about every city I visited (several of which are documented in NCPC’s selected case studies).
Some thoughts on three of the cities I visited:
Tall buildings emerging out of the City of London. Photo by the author.
London’s appeal for height is obvious, with skyscrapers emerging within the City of London. London has a sophisticated plan for managing heights, as explained by Robert Tavenor (transcript – slides) at NCPC’s event on building heights in capital cities (video available here), balancing London’s interest in quality of life, history, and the desire to maintain London’s status as a primary capital of the global world.
All of this planning effort focuses on the City of London, building upon the already existing transportation infrastructure while preserving specific view corridors, and ensuring that tall buildings that do break the existing skyline include high quality design and are clustered together in designated districts. Other such clusters exist outside of London’s center, such as Canary Wharf – more akin to the kind of cluster of tall buildings along the city’s periphery, as seen in La Defense outside of Paris.
View towards La Defense, from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Photo by the author.
View of the flat skyline of Paris from atop the Pompidou Center. Photo by the author.
Paris features a suburban cluster of skyscrapers, while the central city skyline remains almost uniformly flat. However, in recent years, the city has allowed taller buildings in the outer arrondissements. Socialist city officials pushed for additional height as part of a plan to increase housing supply and address housing affordability.
Comparing Paris to DC is superficially appealing. Paris’s almost absolute 37m limit (approx 120 feet) is similar to DC’s limit. NCPC’s summary of case studies highlight their lessons learned from Paris:
Paris demonstrates that restrictive building height controls can coexist with significant residential density. Among the case study cities, it has the greatest population density per square mile.
While this is true, it only highlights what is possible with a Parisian-style limit on height; it does not address what is required to achieve such residential densities. Payton Chung offered these comments on this blind spot in DC-Paris comparisons:
One oft-repeated line heard from the (small-c) conservative crowd is that height limits have worked to keep Paris beautiful. That comment ignores a lot of painful history: the mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, “Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings… if we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years’ worth of residential growth. But they would be very different neighborhoods.”
That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters’ single family houses intact. By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC’s neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.
Another superficial point of comparison is in the effective height limit. While Parisian heights are capped at 120 feet and DC heights commonly max out at 130 feet, the exact mechanism for calculating those hieghts matters a great deal. The DC method, based on street width (height and street width in a 1:1 ratio, plus 20 feet), makes use of the extraordinarily wide streets provided by the L’Enfant Plan.
Paris has similarly broad avenues, but those avenues were carved through the existing cityscape (people often forget that the 1791 L”Enfant plan pre-dates the Haussmann renovations of Paris by half a century), and the absolute nature of the height limit allows for max-height buildings along the city’s narrow, medieval streets – with building height to street width ratios far in excess of DC’s 1:1 +20′.
Narrow streets on the Left Bank in Paris. Photo by the author.
Tall buildings emerging adjacent to the Utrecht Centraal rail station. Photo by the author.
Utrecht Centraal is the busiest rail station in the Netherlands. Thanks to the city’s location in the center of the country, frequent and fast rail connections are available to all points in the country. For pedestrians, the only connection to the medieval center of Utrecht is by walking through the 1970s-era Hoog Catharijne shopping mall. The entire station and adjacent areas are currently in redevelopment, upgrading the rail station to handle increased passenger volumes, restoring a historic canal, and providing room for new, tall development adjacent to the station.
Utrecht is not the only city in the Netherlands pursuing such a strategy. In Amsterdam, the Zuid and Bijlmer Arena stations feature substantial development and tall buildings; Rotterdam’s Centraal station is also a hub for a massive redevelopment project.
According to the Utrecht station area master plan, large areas around the station provide for a base height of 45 meters, with towers up to 90 meters (~300 feet), including the Stadskantoor pictured above. Even with that height, you rarely get a sense that such tall buildings exist. The city’s narrow streets (even with short buildings) constrain view corridors. Within the medieval city, the views you do see are mostly of the 368 foot tall Dom Tower, not of the buildings of similar height closer to the train station.