Driverless cars: a city of cheap robotaxis and the end of car ownership

CC image from the Museum of American History.

CC image from the Museum of American History.

To date, most of the writing about driverless cars seems to focus on technology’s potential to make driving safer by eliminating collisions between vehicles. The thinking is similar to other auto safety improvements such as air bags or anti-lock brakes. These technological advances (endorsed by the US DOT)  incrementally improve the safety of those driving – assuming that you are using a narrowly focused definition of ‘safety.’ However, an auto-centric definition of safety only works in auto-centric environments; in urban environments where cars and bikes and pedestrians are all sharing the same space, the definition of safety cannot solely focus on eliminating collisions between high-tech cars (more on this later).

Other articles predict that driverless cars mean the end of transit – an unlikely scenario that ignores the basic geometry of car-based systems and the capacity advantages of transit (imagine shutting down New York’s transit system and trying to fill that role with nothing but taxis – good luck). Furthermore, if driverless cars make vehicle automation easy, then it should also help drive down the costs for automating transit itself (among other potential uses) and unlock the benefits of automated transit.


The far more interesting scenario is one where autonomous vehicles completely upset the benefits of owning your own car. In the Atlantic Cities, Eric Jaffe questions the assumptions of car ownership in a world of driverless cars:

But we’re not so far away from this future that it’s too early to start considering what it might look like. As Matt Yglesias wrote at Slate in August, Google, the leaders in autonomous car technology, must have had some vision in mind to shell out $258 million for the car-slash-ridesharing service Uber: “ubiquitous taxis — summoned via smartphone or weird glasses — that are so cheap they make car ownership obsolete.”

Think about this world of shared autonomous vehicles for a moment. You wake up and get ready for work, and a few minutes before it’s time to leave you press a button and order an SAV [Shared Autonomous Vehicle]. The car has been strategically positioned to wait in high-demand areas, so you don’t have to wait long. You might share the ride with a couple travelers just as you share an elevator, or perhaps pay a premium to ride alone. Either way, you clear your inbox or read the paper during the commute, which is safer and more reliable than it used to be.

So, basically Robo-Uber. Or Auto-Car2go. Or Johnny Cab. This kind of behavior seems to be a far more likely outcome of the technology than the continued paradigm of each individual owning a car for personal use. Just as transit consultant Jarrett Walker talks about the importance of frequent transit service in providing freedom for users, the on-demand nature of the personal car is similarly freeing – but it required a) ownership of the car to ensure on-demand use, and b) the owner to actually do the driving.

Travel Behavior:

But what kind of changes in behavior can we expect from this shift away from car ownership? Writing at Greater Greater Washington, Nat Bottigheimer notes that planners haven’t even begun to address the issue. Jaffe’s article, however, cites some preliminary research from Austin on the impact of robotaxis.

Civil engineer Kara M. Kockelman of the University of Texas at Austin recently modeled the potential ownership change with grad student Daniel Fagnant…

The results offer an enticing glimpse of a world without car-ownership. Each SAV in the Austin model replaced about 11 conventional household vehicles. The roughly 20,000 people who made up this shared network, formerly owners of roughly as many cars, were now served by a mere 1,700 SAVs. Travelers waited an average of only 20 seconds for their ride to arrive, and you could literally count the number who waited more than 10 minutes on one hand (three). That’s to say nothing of personal savings in terms of cost (insurance, parking, gas) and time.

“Even when we doubled or quadrupled or halved or quartered that trip-making, we didn’t have big changes in our key variables,” says Kockelman. “This replacement rate, this eleven-to-one, those things were very stable.”

Kockelman is quick to point out the caveats. The biggest is that for all the savings in private car-ownership, vehicle-miles traveled doesn’t go down in the Austin model. In fact, it goes up about 10 percent. That’s because not only are SAVs making all the trips people used to make on their own, but they’re repositioning themselves in between trips to reduce wait times (see below). The additional wear also means manufacturers produce about the same number of cars, too, though each new fleet is no doubt a bit smaller and cleaner than the last.

So, a huge decrease in the total number of cars (presumably, with a corresponding decrease in parking demand, making the already-questionable logic behind zoning code parking requirements even more dubious) but an increase in the total vehicle miles traveled indicates that such technology won’t be a magic cure for congestion. It won’t spell the end of public transit in our cities. If the safety benefits accrue mostly to highway travel, it won’t change the need for safer streets where pedestrians, bikes, and cars mix.

The next question is on the impacts of driverless cars on cities and city planning.

The Unwinding: Erosion of our governing institutions

I’m working through my pile of books I collected at the end of the year. I just finished George Packer’s The Unwinding, a book telling the story of the Great Recession through the eyes of several main characters (factory worker turned organizer Tammy Thomas; civil servant turned lobbyist turned civil servant again Jeff Connaughton; truck stop owner turned biodiesel entrepreneur Dean Price) as well as vignettes of famous ones (Jay-Z, Oprah, Robert Rubin, Elizabeth Warren, among others).

The fourth main character in Packer’s story isn’t a single person, but the story of Tampa, Florida. Packer weaves several individuals together as a part of the storyline, including Mike Van Sickler. Van Sickler now writes for the Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau, but reported extensively on foreclosures, mortgage robo-signing, and general planning and development issues in sprawling Tampa. Packer introduces Van Sickler, the journalist who once pondered a career change:


When he was covering city hall at The Palm Beach Post, he’d gotten deeply interested in urban planning – for a while he even thought about switching careers, until he realized that city planners had even less clout than reporters.

I had mixed emotions reading this. It’s a shot at my chosen profession that strikes awfully close to home, but also because it speaks to the challenges facing our institutions across the board – not just those involved in planning, development, and all things urban. It’s one of those uncomfortable statements we know to be true.

Packer’s focus on narrative means telling the story from the viewpoint of the characters, rather than offering an overarching analytical framework. This approach threw off Chris Lehmann (“a chronicle of the fraying of our productive lives that shuns cogent ideological or political explanations of the causes of our present crisis in favor of a thick narrative description of its symptoms”), accusing Packer of letting Robert Rubin off too easily for his role in the unwinding.

Lehmann clearly doesn’t prefer the subtlety of Packer’s method, using the perspective of different characters to critique someone like Rubin, rather than state so explicitly. Packer isn’t trying to be Chris Hayes (another good read, by the way) and lay out a theory of institutional decline. Even for Lehmann, however, adding Van Sickler’s character to the story helped provide some critical thinking:

Van Sickler’s story led to a high-profile federal indictment of Kim on money laundering and fraud charges, but the reporter wasn’t satisfied. He pushed against the complacent truisms about the mortgage meltdown that were being retailed by the other prominent outposts of his profession: “We don’t know why, we just got really greedy, and everybody wanted a house they couldn’t afford,” he says, summing up the prevailing consensus in the mediasphere. Van Sickler adds, “I think that’s lazy journalism. That’s a talking point for politicians who want to look the other way. We’re not all to blame for this.”

After Kim pleaded guilty, the United States attorney for Florida’s Middle District announced that more indictments, of far bigger fish in the mortgage food chain, were in the offing. They never came. “Where are the big arrests?” Van Sickler wonders. “Where are the bankers, the lawyers, the real estate professionals?” Packer finishes the thought for him, in a refrain his readers by now know quite well: “Kim was just one piece of a network—what about the institutions?”

Of course, urban planning isn’t separate from the unwinding. The foreclosure crisis, sprawl, and the decline of the middle class are all linked and all have spatial consequences. And these outcomes are all shaped by our institutions, often with substantial unintended consequences. Perhaps that was part of Van Sickler’s hesitation about a career change. What does that say about the planner’s role, both operating within our institutions and outside of them?

Transit fare media, technology, and fare policy

As WMATA moves forward on their next generation fare payment system (selecting Accenture to manage a pilot program), there are a few lessons to learn from transit operators around the world. During my most recent trip to Europe, I had the chance to use a number of technologies, showing the direction that operators like WMATA are interested in going with their next generation fare systems.

The wonders of technology:

Part of WMATA’s reasoning to replace the existing fare system is the need to accomodate a wider arrange of fare systems and fare structures. When WMATA experimented with their peak-of-the-peak rail fare surcharge, the additional coding to implement the fares introduced a noticeable lag for customers tapping their SmarTrip cards at the faregates.

At the same time, technology is not fare policy. Customers and advocates have been asking for unlimited ride pass products that mesh with WMATA’s distance-based fare structure. They’re now offering a ‘short trip’ pass available on SmarTrip cards, but it still doesn’t offer the full coverage of the rail system’s price points (no sense in getting this pass if most of your rail trips are shorter and thus cheaper), nor does it include bus fares. WMATA indicates that they’ve reached the technical limits of what the current SmarTrip card technology can do.

Beyond those current limitations, the NEPP is also interested in making SmarTrip cards useable for proof-of-payment systems. The DC area’s existing commuter rail operators currently use paper-based tickets, manually checked by conductors. Maryland’s Purple Line and DC’s streetcar introduce two more candidates for proof-of-payment in the regional transit mix – both of which would benefit from easy SmarTrip card connections to the existing faregate-based rail system. The NEPP’s goal is to provide the required back-end systems for all of these capabilities.

Two versions of the OV-chipkaart. CC image from Elisa Triolo.

Two versions of the OV-chipkaart. CC image from Elisa Triolo.

Consider the Netherlands. The Dutch don’t have a particularly large country, and they’ve managed to implement one single farecard for the entire country. The OV-Chipkaart (literally, ‘public transport chip card‘ – so much for cutesy branding) is used by all of the public transit agencies and private operators in the Netherlands, as well as the national rail operator, Nederlandse Spoorwegen. For all trips, regardless of mode (or the presence of faregates), you must check in to board/enter and check out to alight/leave. Transfers are handled automatically. Customers can load money onto the cards and pay as you go, or load pass products from any of the partner agencies (such as these examples from GVB in Amsterdam)

The use of check-in/check-out on all modes (including surface transport like buses and trams) is the kind of fare policy that takes advantage of the technology. It enables mixing different collection systems together (such as faregates and validator targets). The busiest national rail stations are equipped with fare gates (though most are locked in the open position for now), while smaller stations have simple pylons with validators. For surface transit without large stations, validators for check-in/out are located near all doors.

Fare media and fare policy are not the same:

Technology is part of the challenge, but it alone cannot overrule fare policy decisions. WMATA is an excellent case, where the technical capabilities of the SmarTrip platform limit the complexity and type of unlimited ride passes, but that doesn’t explain fare policy decisions that penalize transfers between modes. This is a policy decision, not one based on technical limits.

Integrating fares across a transit network is critical in shaping the behavior of users. New York has big ideas for infill commuter rail stations that could make better use of existing infrastructure for transit purposes, but without an integrated fare system (so that intra-city regional rail rides are cost-effective for passengers compared to the subway) the idea will never reach its full potential.

T+ ticket for Paris Metro and RER. CC image from josh.

T+ ticket for Paris Metro and RER. CC image from josh.

Consider Paris, where all transit is part of the same fare structure. From the passenger’s standpoint, there’s no difference between using the RER vs. the Metro within the city. The T+ ticket is easily available to visitors and makes use of the universal faregates shared by the Metro and RER. This unification of technology enables a unified fare policy, but the specific policies allow and encourage passengers to use RER services within the city.

Paris has a smartcard, branded as NaviGo. The first version was available only to residents, but worked for the Metro, RER and the Parisian bikeshare system, Velib (something New York is hoping to do with the MTA’s planned open payment system).

Oyster Card. CC image from David King.

Oyster Card. CC image from David King.

Consider London, where the addition of rapid transit service, branding (inclusion on the Tube map; use of roundel and other brand elements), and fare policy to legacy commuter and mainline rail infrastructure created the Overgroud. The Overground is now expanding, thanks to its success. London’s Crossrail project will share some of the same principles but with new tunnels akin to the Paris RER.

London’s smartcard, Oyster, takes advantage of the system’s technical ability to simplify a complicated fare system for users. Capping daily fares at the price of an equivalent day pass ensures that passengers using pay-as-you-go (particularly visitors) won’t get stiffed. It helps those unfamiliar with the system, demystifying the fares and zones. Like other unlimited use products, it encourages use of the system.

Buying a fare card:

As great as these products are, they’re not always easy to obtain. The Paris NaviGo isn’t marketed to visitors. In other cities, cards are available through ticket vending machines, but those TVMs likely won’t accept American magstripe credit cards. We can hope that recent fraud will speed the transition to pin-and-chip credit cards.

Beyond just chip and pin, American transit agencies like WMATA and New York’s MTA are looking for using contact-less credit and debit cards to collect fares directly. Even London is looking to end the Oyster card as a separate fare media, meshing the daily fare cap, only tracking based on the use of bank-provided cards.

Concerns for Future Technology:

Each of the European fare card systems has plenty of criticism. However, none of the problems with London’s Oyster card seem as severe as the issues with Chicago’s new Ventra card (replacing the older contactless Chicago Card). Ventra’s rollout has been plagued with errors, but the more concerning are Ventra’s wide range of hidden fees. From a system under the transit agency’s control, such fees are alarming – but it’s hard to see how you could avoid similar fees in a fully open payment system – such as London’s proposal – where the banks are issuing the fare media.

There’s also a concern about the ability of transit agencies to continue to offer useful unlimited ride pass products if they turn over the production of all fare media to banks and other payment providers. Good technology can’t magically craft good fare policy, but the two are linked.

Updating the reading list

CC image from carnagenyc.

CC image from carnagenyc.

Reading and writing about Vishaan Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities reminded me that I need to add a few titles to the reading list. I’ve read several of these in the past year but since I haven’t been the most diligent in updating the list, there are also several that I’ve read (and written about) a while ago – such as John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay’s Aerotropolis.

It’s a rather wide range, including a whole string of economics-influenced books. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow specifically mentioned Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, which lead to reading his other books, which lead to reading Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge, and so on.

Here are the additions, presented in no particular order. As always, I’m open to suggestions for books to add and/or books to read.

Zoned Out: Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land-UseJonathan Levine (2006)

A concise re-framing of the debate about market outcomes in planning and development. Levine disputes the idea that sprawl is a free market outcome, but rather a product of regulation. Arguments in favor of more traditional urban growth often needs to prove that it won’t increase traffic (as one example) to justify alterations to the rules that demand auto-centric development. Levine argues because of myth of free-market sprawl is just that, reforms to allow more urban development should be framed as market-friendly and as improving consumer choice. Doing so shifts the default option for urban development.

Levine was one of my graduate school professors at the University of Michigan.

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in MarketsNassim Nicholas Taleb (2001)

The first installment of Taleb’s trilogy starts with the premise that humans are oblivious (thanks to our cognitive biases) to the role of randomness in our lives and that we make mistakes about the causality of events all the time. Given the assumptions about causality baked into numerous decision-making points as a part of the city planning process, as well as role of randomness in any sort of complex system (like a city), this is an excellent read to better understand the limits of our own understanding.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable – Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)

The second book in Taleb’s series discusses the impacts of improbable events. A Black Swan is a surprise event with a large impact, and one that can be rationalized after the fact. Taleb posits that these unexpected changes (events, by definition, that we cannot predict) are tremendously consequential. One of the more interesting arguments for cities is the narrative fallacy, where we use stories to explain things, even if the explanation is wrong.

Taleb’s tone is often openly antagonistic towards establishment figures (more so than in his first book, Fooled by Randomness). You can find an excerpt from the book introducing the concept here.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012)

Taleb’s third and most recent book builds off of the previous two, not just to find random events of large significance, but things that gain from that chaos. The mythical version would be the Hydra; cut off one head, and it grows two more. It is a different concept from resiliency, because the disorder must actually make the subject stronger. The idea can apply to some cities and urban economies, where creative destruction makes the end result stronger.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and HappinessRichard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008)

Lays out the way we make decisions and the powerful implications of default options on the eventual outcomes. Thaler and Sunstein call this a ‘choice architecture.’ Implications about choice architecture for cities are numerous, both in terms of individual behavior (such as travel mode choice) as well as the firm level such as zoning codes and development decisions (and the unintended consequences therein).

Sunstein also wrote about his government service in the Obama administration, applying these principles of choice architecture and libertarian paternalism to government, but Nudge is by far the more interesting book. Wikipedia’s summary provides a good synopsis of book’s argument.

The Signal and the NoiseNate Silver (2012)

This book from the popular election-prediction, baseball statistician, poker player and quant analysis guru talks about all different kinds of prediction across all sorts of fields (macroeconomics, meteorology, elections, baseball, global warming, and geology) and the relative successes and failures of each. Some fare better than others, some express more confidence in their predictions than others (and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with their accuracy), and some are complete failures.

Given the outsized role of prediction in planning for the future, understanding the limits of those predictions is key in shaping policies and plans. Don Shoup’s takedown of the pseudo-science of parking minimum requires in The High Cost of Free Parking hits on the same themes of the lack of accuracy and precision; some blog discussion on those topics here and here.

The Warmth of Other SunsIsabel Wilkerson (2010)

A history of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern industrial cities and California. Told through the eyes of three individuals who left the South to establish new lives outside of the direct influence of Jim Crow, it tells the story of a key part of urban history in the US. For more, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s initial reactions to the book.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty – Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (2012)

This isn’t a book about cities per se, but it does speak to economies and governance and with lessons for cities, not just nations. The authors posit that the main difference between prosperous societies and impoverished ones is the development of inclusive political and economic institutions, spreading power across the society instead of extractive institutions controlled by a few. The critique is that the book short changes other environmental factors such as geography.

Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live NextJohn D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay (2011)

A story about globalization and the power of agglomeration economies in urban development, told through the lens of a boom in air travel around the world. The description about the value of air travel is persuasive, but Kasarda’s prescription for additional aerotropoli is a tad formulaic. Nevertheless, Lindsay’s description of how air travel enables agglomeration and helps concentrate economic activity is an important story.

Discussed in the blog here and here; also see the aerotropolis tag.

A country of hyperdense cities

"How to build good cities," from Vishaan Chakrabarti's 'A Country of Cities.'

“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

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.

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 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 buidlings above the tracks, presenting an unbroken street wall along Earl's Court Road. Image from Google Maps.

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.

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.

WMATA fy15 budget revenues

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.

Fearing 'hyperdensity' in urban areas

Aerial view of Toronto. CC image from rene_beignet.

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.

Even more signs that the Silver Line is coming...

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.

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.

646,449 - DC's population continues to grow

Cranes. CC image from Daniel Foster.

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.

The importance of more & wider doors for future Metro railcars

CC photo from Stephen Evans

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:

Railcar Door Comparison

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.

Online sources:

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.