Seeking clarity on WMATA transit governance – operations vs regional funding and coordination

WMATA logo on a 7000-series seat. Creative Commons image from Kurt Raschke.
WMATA logo on a 7000-series seat. Creative Commons image from Kurt Raschke.

It’s not easy to do two things at once. Particularly when you have two very different tasks, one might get more attention than the other – or the goals for each might blur together in your mind.

Keeping these tasks distinct is a challenge. Jarrett Walker often speaks about the distinction between transit systems that focus on providing coverage vs. maximizing ridership, and the importance of thinking clearly about the two goals.

The current public dispute among WMATA’s Board of Directors about the preferred qualifications for a new general manager exposes a similar rift – with some members preferring to focus on a seasoned public transit executive (an operator), and others looking for a business-oriented financial turnaround manager.

As a transit agency, WMATA has to fill several disparate roles (thus the search for a single leader with super-human capabilities):

  • Operate regional and local bus transit, as well as the regional Metrorail system
  • Coordinate regional transit planning
  • Provide a regional transit funding mechanism

The latter two tasks (planning and funding) can be somewhat grouped together. WMATA’s Board of Directors is therefore charged with two rather disparate tasks: to oversee the day-to-day management and operations of a large regional rail and bus system; and to coordinate and fund that system across three state-level jurisdictions.

These disparate roles present plenty of challenges for WMATA’s leadership – just look at this list of tasks facing WMATA’s future GM, ranging from safely operating the system to uniting the region. Piece of cake – anybody can do that! Super heroes need not apply.

Absent any regional government, the WMATA Board has no choice but to act as a proxy for a regional legislature. While state-level governments might be anachronisms, they’re also not going to disappear anytime soon. Twitter-based WMATA reformers will call for ‘blowing up the compact’ and replacing it with… something. Aside from the Federal government, an inter-state compact is the only form of cross-border regionalism we have available to us. Others call for direct election of Metro board members. It’s an intriguing idea – BART’s board members are elected – but BART only operates a regional rail system. There’s only one elected regional government in the US, and it is wholly contained within a single state.

The medium-term fiscal outlook for WMATA shows an unsustainable trend of rising costs and stagnant ridership and revenues. These trends have stressed the agency’s business model, which requires member jurisdictions to pitch in to cover the annual operating subsidies.

However, the most recent breakdowns in WMATA’s reliability demand greater oversight on the agency’s primary task: safe and efficient operation of the regional transit system.

Instead of arguing about the preferred qualifications for a general manager, this dispute should open the door for a broader conversation about the system’s governance and how it can best tackle the different tasks as a transit operator and as a regional governing body.

During WMATA’s last crisis and most recent round of governance reform proposals following the 2009 Red Line crash, David Alpert hit on the challenges of the different roles for the WMATA Board. Given the different needs, David went so far as to suggest two separate boards for WMATA. Too many reform proposals seemed to talk past the different tasks required of the agency’s leadership – operational oversight and regional coordination.

The idea isn’t unprecedented. For example, in Paris, the Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France (STIF) is the regional entity that coordinates planning, funding, and operation of transit in the region, and oversees the performance of the various transit operators it contracts with.

STIF negotiates with operators, holding them to performance-based contracts. In Paris, there are two primary rail operators – RATP, operating the Paris Metro, and SNCF, operating most of the RER and suburban trains. STIF also contracts with various bus operators.

The European Union issued mandates for how transportation companies must organize themselves, but the arm’s-length contracting between the regional planning body/coordinator and the local operators pre-dates these EU models. While these mandates for privatization and separation of operations from infrastructure are intertwined with this governance model, they remain a separate issue.

The idea of keeping operations and regional funding/planning at arm’s length seems to help sharpen the focus on accountability. It remains to be seen if the competitive tendering of contracts between transport associations and operators results in meaningful competition – after all, these kinds of systems are natural monopolies. But these contracts do indeed codify the relationships between the regional governance system and the operator, opening the door for maintaining accountability.

In these examples, the governance structure helps provide clarity about the roles and responsibilities for each participant in the system.

Transit fare media, technology, and fare policy – lessons from Europe

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.

Integrating retail uses into transit stations: opportunities to increase revenue, improve urban design and passenger experience

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.

Urban tramways and surface transit priority – Paris

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 alingment within the old rail right of way; La Defense skyscrapers in the background. CC image from Wiki.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Tall buildings in European cities

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.
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 (transcriptslides) 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 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.
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.
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.
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.

The future of Metro’s rolling stock – ideas for the 8000 series

At some point in 2014, WMATA’s newest rail cars, the 7000 series, will enter service. These cars will depart from the same basic design of all of Metro’s current rolling stock in a couple of ways. However, despite the accolades of the new designs from Metro, the 7000 series design misses some key opportunities to squeeze extra capacity out of the system and run the trains more efficiently.

While the ship has sailed for the 7000 series, all is not lost. WMATA will need to eventually expand the fleet and replace the remaining older rail cars; and will do so with the yet-to-be-designed 8000 series. (WMATA current has four cars with 8000-level numbers from the 1000-series, comprising the money train.) Depending on the source, design work on the 8000 series could start between 2018 and 2020; the lead time for developing a new rail car is long; note this article on the 7000 series (again, set to enter service in late 2014) dated from January, 2008.

The 7000 series has potential to improve reliability and operate efficiently: WMATA’s contract holds the builder to meet or exceed a standard of an average of 150,000 miles between failures (WMATA’s current fleet achieves just over 60,000 miles between failures; 150k represents an improvement, but still shy of NYC’s fleet average, yet alone the performance of NYC’s newest railcars).

Efficient and reliable systems will be an important improvement, but they don’t address some of the broader elements of a good rapid transit system. With an eye towards improving the 8000 series, and after riding modern rolling stock in other cities around the world, I’ll offer some suggestions for future railcars in DC.

Maximize the number of doors: While riding Line 1 of the Paris Metro under crush loads, one thing that amazed me was the consistently short station dwell times. As a train pulled into a station, large numbers of people would board and disembark within a matter of 10-15 seconds, and then the train was on its way. Contrast that against WMATA during peak hours at one of the key transfer stations (Metro Center, L’Enfant Plaza, or Gallery Place): I’ve often seen train operators start to close the doors after 20-30 seconds, but people were still getting off of the car, to say nothing of those waiting to get on.

Metro’s current rolling stock features only three doors on each side of a 75-foot long rail car (New York gets four doors to fit on a 60-foot long rail car; Toronto’s new cars feature four doors on a 76 foot long car) Increasing the number of doors on each train makes the exchange of passengers from train to platform easier and faster, particularly with large crowds. The added ease also improves the reliability and consistency of station dwell times. Wider doors are also an option; the MP-05 trains in Paris operating on Line 1 feature three sets of wide doors per side of each 50-foot long rail car.

Paris Metro MP-05 train with wide doors. Note the lack of a cab due to fully automatic operation. CC Image from Wiki.
Paris Metro MP-05 train with wide doors. Note the lack of a cab due to fully automatic operation. CC Image from Wiki.

Despite pleading from train operators, when the dwell times are not long enough for passengers to board/alight, they will hold doors open. This introduces the potential for delay, both by degrading WMATA’s schedule adherence, but also by risking a door malfunction that will take the train out of service. WMATA’s procurement documents for the 7000 series sought a “proven linear door drive system” to improve reliability; however, changing the system’s design (by adding more doors) has the opportunity to improve efficiency and reliability above and beyond the technical systems.

Open gangways: More doors improves passenger flow between the train and platform; removing the doors within the train allows passengers to move along the entire length of the train. This increases capacity and improves the passenger experience, allowing them to naturally balance the load and move along the train if one car is too crowded.

IMAG1471  IMAG1474

Looking through the open gangway of new S-stock in London, and at the floorplate in the gangway going around a curve. Photos by the author. 

The most compelling reason is additional capacity. In Toronto, the new ‘Rocket’ subway cars increased capacity by 8-10 percent. London’s new Sub-surface rolling stock features open gangways between cars, as does the MP-05 stock in Paris. New York is considering open gangways for future railcar procurements.

When asked about why the 7000 series did not include open gangways, Metro cited vague concerns about safety where a suspect might roam throughout the entire train. Yet, in New York, politicians have cited the inability to move between cars as a threat to safety. Both arguments rest on dubious assumptions, but appeals to a vague sense of safety cannot trump the obvious boost of an additional 10% capacity.

Seating arrangements: During discussions about the 7000 series, WMATA opted to keep the current seating arrangement, dominated by forward/rear facing seats, rather than sideways-facing seats that maximize standing room. In WMATA’s own mock-ups, the loss of seated capacity is minimal (about 8 seats per married pair, or 4 seats per car on average). While bench-style seating is common in Europe, is is not used exclusively – though all of the newer railcars make a strong effort to increase standing room and improve passenger flow within the car.

Interior layout of MP-05. CC image from Wiki.
Interior layout of MP-05. CC image from Wiki.

For example, consider the option of using forward/rear facing seats as singles instead of doubles. WMATA’s transverse seating is usually arranged 2+2, with a fairly narrow aisle. The MP-05 rolling stock in Paris uses a 2+1 combination, in addition to substantial center-facing seating. London’s S-Stock offers a variety of options, as does Toronto’s Rocket. Extensive use of flip-down seating adds flexibility for a variety of users, offering seats when necessary, but providing additional standing room during peak hours.

Passenger information: One of the most obvious improvements for passengers on WMATA’s 7000 series will be “next stop” displays (noted for the prototype’s typos), similar to the ‘FIND’ system in some of New York’s subway cars. These displays offer a strip map of the line, showing the next stations. However, more is possible. In Paris, the digital displays in the MP-05s not only display the upcoming stations, but the time to the end of the line, as well as major upcoming transfer points.

Above-the-door strip map for Line 8 in the Paris Metro. Photo by the author.
Above-the-door strip map for Line 8 in the Paris Metro. Photo by the author.

Digital displays offer flexibility to the operator to use trains on any line. However, many operators nonetheless use old-fashioned, route-specific strip maps.

Even though it’s not a subway or rapid transit application, the in-train displays from the Netherlands are impressive. The screens show the current route, next stops, scheduled arrival time and track. When arriving at a station, the in-train displays will show platform information for connection trains, allowing passengers to head directly to that platform. In the event of a delay or change in the schedule, the displays update immediately.

Blurry photo of info screen inside an NS InterCity train, with arrival and connection information. Photo by the author.
Blurry photo of info screen inside an NS InterCity train, with arrival and connection information. Photo by the author.

Overall: I’ll note that none of these are new or unique ideas; Matt Johnson (open gangways; more doors) and David Alpert (transverse seating) both suggested similar changes for the 7000 series. I’ve offered suggestions in the past, as well.

Toronto Rocket technical drawing. Image from Bombardier.
Toronto Rocket technical drawing. Image from Bombardier.

You don’t even need to look overseas to see many of these ideas in action. As mentioned above, Toronto’s new Rocket subway cars incorporate most of these ideas. WMATA has the same opportunities. Toronto’s Rockets feature permanently married 6-car trainsets (the maximum length for Toronto’s system), four doors per 76-foot long car, and lots of standing room without removing all transverse seating – something to aspire to for WMATA’s next railcar procurement.

Just returned from visiting Europe…

Paris, 7th Arrondissement. Photo by author.
Paris, 7th Arrondissement. Photo by the author.

Over the past two weeks, my fiancee I had the opportunity to visit friends and family in Europe – my first trip in far too long. Our itinerary included London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Utrecht. I hope to include photos and observations on the cities and their transportation systems in several posts over the long Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll start with some general and quick observations here.

On public transit: As you might expect, this trip included lots of transit. In London, we made extensive use of the Underground, as well as the Gatwick Express upon departure. In the Netherlands, we made extensive use of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen rail system, mostly using the InterCity trains between our home base in Utrecht to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Schipol. In Paris, we used both Metro and RER, as well as RATP’s modern tramways – a chance to see the lessons of modern streetcars applied in person.

The networks are all impressive, as were the levels of service and efficiency. It’s difficult to get a true sense of how the systems work for regular riders on a day-to-day basis when you’re just visiting. For example, a local laughed at my admiration for the NS rail system (admittedly based on a small sample size), complaining about frequent delays and never-ending construction. The grass might always seem greener on the other side, but complaints from the locals aside – I’m pretty sure it actually is greener in this case.

On high-speed rail: We traveled to Paris via the Thalys high speed train, using NS to meet the Thalys in Rotterdam. This was my first experience on true high-speed rail (sorry, Amtrak). While our return journey was delayed in departing due to a previous malfunction fouling the schedule, the overall experience was excellent – easy integration with public transit on both ends of the journey, no hassles in boarding the train or accessing the platforms – just check the display for your track, and check on the platform for where exactly on the platform to stand:

On-platform display at Rotterdam Central, showing platform locations (letters) for first class and second class coaches for the Thalys high speed service to Paris. Photo my the author.
On-platform display at Rotterdam Central, showing platform locations (letters) for first class and second class coaches for the Thalys high speed service to Paris. Photo by the author.

On walking: Of all the places we visited, Paris was by far the most pedestrian-friendly. Between the ample pedestrian infrastructure (not necessarily at the expense of the cars, given the wide Hausmann streets) and the excellent, ped-friendly city-scape, travel via foot was easy. While London’s urban design is extraordinarily ped-friendly, far more of the street right-of-way is devoted to car uses. Addtionally, the traffic culture (perhaps some combination of legal and cultural reasons – or maybe just my failure to adjust to looking the other way when crossing the street) clearly prioritizes vehicular movements.

In the Netherlands, particularly in Utrecht, the threat to peaceful pedestrian strolling is not from cars, but from bikes. With narrow cartways along canals and amid old, medieval street grids, the mixing between cars, bikes, and pedestrians is amazing – but it doesn’t necessarily allow for the Parisian-kind of urban strolling.

On tall buildings:  There were lots of them. Didn’t seem to be a big deal.

More to come…

A visual survey of selected elevated rail viaducts: part 2 – best practices of integrating viaducts into urban designs

Continued from the prologue and part 1… A look at legacy examples of older elevated construction precedents. Some examples drawn from this post and this thread on the archBoston forums.

Berlin: As a part of his writing about elevated rail, Jarrett Walker takes note of Berlin’s elevated rail, and the use of space beneath them:

But the Stadtbahn is something else.  Completed in 1882, it runs east-west right through the middle of the city, with all kinds of urban land uses right next to it.  It’s a major visual presence in many of Berlin’s iconic sites, from affluent Charlottenberg to the Frederichstrasse shopping core to the “downtown of East Berlin,” Alexanderplatz.  It even skirts Berlin’s great central park, the Tiergarten, and looks down into the zoo.  If you were proposing to build it today, virtually every urbanist I’ve ever met would instinctively hate the idea, and if the idea somehow got past them, the NIMBYs would devour it.

Yet much of it is beautiful. Most of the viaduct is built as a series of brick arches.  Each arch is large enough to contain rooms, and today many of these are retail space, most commonly restaurants.  These restaurants put their tables outside, sometimes facing a park but still, unavoidably, right next to the viaduct, and they’re very pleasant places to be.  A train clatters overhead every minute or two, but it’s not dramatically louder than the other sounds of urban life, so it’s a comfortable part of the urban experience, devoid of menace.  I could sit in such a place for hours.

Indeed, the  four-track Stadtbahn cuts through Berlin on its own right of way, not in adjacent to or in the median of another street. Many streets run tangent to the elevated railway for segments, but much of the city directly abuts the railway.

Berlin Stadtbahn aerial image from Bing Maps.
Berlin Stadtbahn aerial image from Bing Maps.

By cutting through the city on a separate level and without directly mirroring the street grid, the transit network adds another layer to the cityscape. The city, both old and new (and yet to be built), has grown around the elevated rail:

Berlin Stadtbahn aerial from Bing Maps.
Berlin Stadtbahn aerial from Bing Maps.

At the street, many of the viaduct’s archways have been turned over to retail uses, activating what would otherwise be a barrier of dead space:

View of the same viaduct from street level. Image from Google Streetview.
View of the same viaduct from street level. Image from Google Streetview.

Jarrett’s post features a number of other images from Berlin, showing the various types of spaces the Stadtbahn creates. He closes asking if we might learn from these legacy examples in building new transit infrastructure:

Europe has some really beautiful transit viaducts, including some in the dense centres of cities.  Most of them are a century old, so the city has partly grown around them.  But the effect is sometimes so successful that I wonder if we shouldn’t be looking more closely at them, asking why they work, and whether they still have something to teach us about how to build great transit infrastructure.

Paris: Metro Line 6:

Paris Metro Line 6. Image from Google Streetview.
Paris Metro Line 6. Image from Google Streetview.

Line 6 runs down the middle of several wide streets, providing enough room for bike and pedestrian pathways beneath the viaduct, while also leaving enough space alongside for trees and landscaping. The aesthetic elements of the rail infrastructure (stone piers, steel spans) echo the architecture of the city as a whole.

Paris also has examples of old, now un-used vaiducts re-purposed as part of a vibrant cityscape:

Paris 2
Viaduc des Arts, Paris. Image from Google Streetview.

Above the viaduct is now an elevated linear park.

New York: In the comments of Part 1, Charlie asked about New York’s High Line. I did not initially include it, but I do think it offers an intersting example. The High Line (or what remains of it), like Berlin’s Stadtbahn, does not run directly above many streets. Also, the city grew around the infrastructure – in the High Line’s case of delivering freight to adjacent factories, that direct interaction was the very point of building the line.

Aerial view of the High Line weaving between and through buildings. Image from Google Maps.
Aerial view of the High Line weaving between and through buildings. Image from Google Maps.
Southern end ot the High Line, running adjacent to Washington St. Image from Google Streetview.
Southern end ot the High Line, running adjacent to Washington St. Image from Google Streetview.

One particular example of elevated rail in New York both looks to the past (we don’t build ’em like we used to) but could also learn from the repurposing of the spaces created under viaducts for uses other than storage. The Queens Boulevard elevated rail line runs down the middle of a wide street, with large archways beneath the tracks – currently used for parking.

New York - Queens Blvd 1
Queens Boulevard elevated rail. Image from Google Streetview.

Consider that when the line was built, the surrounding area was completely undeveloped. The city (and the roadway) emerged around the rail line, rather than cutting the rail line through an existing urban evironment (I don’t know that any single image better conveys the links between transportation, land use, and development). Meshing transit expansion into low-density areas is not just about transportation, but about re-shaping the city. Under the right conditions, it can work well.

New York has other examples of repurposing space beneath viaducts. While not specifically a transit example, the re-use of space under the Queensboro Bridge approaches in Manhattan is an example of what’s possible with some of these rail viaducts:

Queensboro bridge approach, New York. Image from Google Streetview.
Queensboro bridge approach, New York. Image from Google Streetview.

Short of re-purposing the space beneath the tracks, the Queens Boulevard elevated rail allows for a perfectly acceptable kind of rail, without shadowing the streets or sidewalks below, making use of the street’s wide right of way. Alon Levy takes note:

But when there is an el about Queens Boulevard, everything works out: the street is broken into two narrower halves, with the el acting as a street wall and helping produce human scale; the el is also farther from the buildings and uses an arched concrete structure, both of which mitigate its impact.

Any other examples of older elevated infrastructure we can learn from?

Table of contents:


Streetcar lessons from France

Paris T3 - image from wikipedia - note the seven-segment vehicle, dedicated right of way, and grass tracks.

Last month, Yonah Freemark’s post on the rapid expansion of tramways in France caught my eye.  These systems offer several key lessons for the streetcar projects popping up across the US, as well as here in DC. The thinking is to make the tram different from just a streetcar – a transit option that isn’t much different from a bus in terms of geometry.

In many ways, this is about further blurring the already fuzzy distinction between light rail and a streetcar.

Some key takeways:

Give transit the edge:  For most cases, this would mean putting transit in a dedicated right of way.  Taking advantage of the urban design elements with grass tracks is nice, but the key element is the dedicated right of way to speed operations and increase capacity (call it mostly Jarrett Walker’s ‘Class B’ right of way).  Leaving an expensive investment to slog along in traffic like the bus would isn’t giving that investment the fullest chance to succeed.

One commenter notes the explicit trade-off:

US so-called light rail is more like a cheap suburban railway, with near absolute segregation, needing large compulsory purchases – again not endearing them to householders or shopkeepers. San Diego had one of the cheapest build costs, but even so had to pay $18 Million for the route – an old railway.

France seems to have decided, rather than buy up property, remove the cars which clutter up the street and replace by a tramway which more than doubles the street passenger throughput. A much better way of doing things.

Take advantage of capacity:  One of rail’s clear geometric advantages over bus is capacity.  The newer tramways in France take advantage of this with longer vehicles than the streetcars currently in service in the US. As an example, the T3 line in Paris makes use of 7-segment Alstom Citadis 402 trams, measuring in at approximately 140 feet long – more than doubling the per-vehicle capacity of the vehicles in use in Portland and Seattle.

Standardization saves money:  These new tramways are, for the most part, fairly standardized in both construction and in rolling stock, allowing for substantial cost savings.  Many of the vehicles feature modular construction, both adding flexibility while maintaining standardization and making procurement of replacement parts easier.  Standardization doesn’t mean a similar look, however – customize-able front ends allow each city to personalize the look and feel of their trams.

Go big or go home:  Well, sort of. Scale matters, both in producing a project large enough to be a successful link in the network and big enough to achieve some economies of scale.  The wiki graphic shows the scale of the tramway network in and around Paris alone:

Building at scale (and with a predictable pattern of expansion and reinvestment) helps control costs.

Moving US systems to this kind of standard could be seen in one of two ways: either in terms of removing a great deal of the over-engineering of US light rail systems, or in terms of increasing the standards of US Streetcar systems.  Given the length of some of DC’s proposed streetcar lines, offering this kind of advantage to transit would be a sure-fire way to give these investments every chance to succeed not just as economic development projects, but as transportation projects as well.