Thursday, March 22, 2012

On Trams, Trains, Trolley, and Trampolines

Between reading a ridiculously amazing article from the Atlantic on the pervasive takeover of market society from the market economy over lunch, I was following along @Spacing's coverage of the debate in Toronto whether to link some suburb to the city via subway or LRT. And by LRT and the discussion about it being at-grade in the street ROW, I'll assume that means legitimate LRT, ie tram. As opposed to DART which is closer to heavy rail like TRE than LRT.

I almost spit out my salad reading that Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, an irrational, militant opponent of bicycles 'on his roads', favored a subway. This shocked me at first as I thought the debate was subway vs. no subway. Until he started talking about how LRT or trams would slow traffic. And when they share lanes, yes, they often do. Which is precisely why we should favor them (speaking in general and not as a Torontonian(?), which I'm not). This, before even discussing the cost savings of LRT ($20M/mi.) vs subway (<$200M/mi.).

Both have advantages and disadvantages like all things urban and that's why debate is necessary. But I want to talk about rail and its often dueling connective and disconnective with particular attention to things that aren't always as they seem.

First, a primer:
All rail is disconnective in some way. That is the nature of infrastructure. And the movement of cities is a delicate balance. The bigger the infrastructure the more corrosive it is upon the fabric and value of place.

Typical regional rail like DART or TRE are only connective at their station points. The rest of the way the rail lines become a barrier to overall integration. Ever wonder where the term "other side of the tracks came from?" Yet, station areas are typically beautiful, desirable places? Blame the railroad infrastructure of gravitation points and disconnective segments.

Hence, subways. Subways solve the majority of those problems.

As I often say, it is regional infrastructure that meets local infrastructure tangentially. However, its trade-offs are two-fold: it is very expensive and really only makes sense if the density is already there (at least in terms of buildings if not people, ie empty downtowns). And second, subways like elevated rail lines bring the 3-dimensional movement into play, which itself is disconnective. Whether underground or overground, extreme lengths must be taken to make these platforms less uncomfortable.

From entrance (Bilbao):
To platforms (Stockholm):

Tram: There are lots of versions of the modern tram, many of which have their own dedicated right-of-way with pretty emerald green grass corridors, like Grenoble. Whether sharing space with vehicles or in their own corridor tends to (and should) change based on context. Denser, more populated, busier, urban places will have less space. Thus, the need for sharing space.

But due to Mayor Ford's commentary and the common misunderstanding of the value of the McKinney Avenue Trolley, I want to focus on trams/trolleys that share lanes in urban locales.

The McKinney Avenue Trolley on McKinney Avenue. Because it's a form of transportation, we think it's one and only value is to move people linearly from point A to point B. And because it is slow we ridicule it. It's only for tourists (though people commute to/fro work every day on it). And its old. And stupid. And I hate it. And they're probably all communazis or something.

Here's its real value. It does have frequent stops, is slow moving and "inefficient." McKinney would be a raceway if it wasn't for MATA slowing everything down. And that's what makes it so actually efficient. McKinney would be a giant barrier where no pedestrians would walk, congregate, eat, nor cross if it wasn't for MATA.

A streets interconnective value is not 1-dimensional. For the most part it is 2-dimensional. A network. The complexity of the network determines overall value. Higher overall interconnectivity, higher land value. Higher land value, higher density.

See the following diagrams suggesting degrees of spatial integration at the hyper-local level based on observation:

A level 0 street: Disconnective.
This is Lemmon Avenue. People don't cross the road for a variety of reasons, speed of traffic, width, etc. Value depreciates. Area disintegrates.

Level 1 street: Integrated
This is Greenville Avenue. Pedestrians will cross, but primarily only at crosswalks and intersections unless the road is all clear.

Level 2: Main Street - Highly Integrated
Pedestrians will cross wherever. Traffic is slowed because it is two-way and there exists ample friction in the way of "collision hazards," ie pedestrians, trees, etc. Also known as things people like.

McKinney without the streetcar would be somewhere between a 0 and a 1 and likely have a negative effect on overall value of the area. With the trolley, McKinney is between a 1 and 2. These are multipliers. Under 1 and the area corrodes to some degree. Over 1 and value is added.

The value of the streetcar is two-fold. It moves people who don't wish to drive nor park in downtown ($75/month). And it slows cars furthering the cross-connective integration of the area. Meaning: more pedestrians. And pedestrians are the ones that populate the stores and shops that we crave on our streets. Uptown Pub recently removed its streetside parking for more patio space. Why? It's customers were mostly walking. It adds square footage for more tables/seating. And, if people do drive they have to pay to the valet in the back.

Thank the trolley. For being inefficient.