Monday, January 7, 2013

Why would we invest in streetcars during a recession?

In a recession, we can stimulate the economy by investing in putting people to work building a more cost-effective transportation infrastructure that will save us money for generations to come.  

When the economy comes back, there’s going to be a lot of building. Now is the time to prepare the ground to channel that construction. Do we want more suburban sprawl or do we want some walkable urbanism? 

We want our next building boom to make Chicago more efficient, cheaper to operate and maintain, more convenient to live in, and easier to get around in.

Our commitment to world-class modern transit will attract jobs and real estate development from the suburbs and other sprawling cities, stimulate private investment by mitigating the risk to developers, and channel those investments into high-density transit-oriented development along the streetcar corridor.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Who decided that luxury demands pollution and waste?

Luxury: indulge yourself.      Sacrifice: save the planet.

There are two aspects to the transition to a clean-energy economy. First, we need to clean up the way we make energy. Second, we need to use less of it.

People usually assume that if it's good for the planet, it's going to mean a sacrifice for us. But pollution and waste do not always enrich our lives. There's no inherent luxury in a drafty home or an hour-long commute in heavy traffic. If we get smarter about how we make and use energy, we can save time and money and live more convenient, enjoyable lives.

1. Change the way we produce and distribute energy. 

We need to transition from coal-fired power plants to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The technology has already been worked out, the costs are coming down as the industry expands, and renewable energy plants are already attracting lots of private capital. Most importantly, they are less expensive than new coal or nuclear plants, and they don't pollute. 

We need to build a smart grid to distribute the energy we produce efficiently, and to bring power from the most effective production sites to the places that need it most.

2. Use energy more efficiently.

There's no reason the average American needs to use twice as much energy as the average European and still have a lower standard of living. Modernization is not about sacrificing to save the planet, it's about getting more for less. Most of the things we need to do to stop wasting so much energy will in fact make our lives more comfortable and convenient, and they'll save us all a lot of money in the long run. 

The most important way to save energy is to transition from suburban sprawl to walkable urbanism. The largest unmet demand in real estate today is for homes in walkable urban neighborhoods, and we have a generation of young people who have no intention of starting and ending each day sitting alone in a car, stuck in traffic with nothing to do. The next generation is ready for electric cars, but they're not ready for the cost of maintaining and expanding the system of roads, let alone the congestion or the hours of wasted time getting from here to there. They want to be able to connect with friends on the train home from work, walk two blocks to an apartment with a doorman and a view, stop on the corner for groceries, and walk to dinner and a movie in the neighborhood.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Joy and Heartbreak of Flexibility

Exit the #11

I heard Forrest Claypool speak at City Club this week, and he did a good job of explaining the difficult and ultimately successful task of reprioritizing, getting labor concessions, and making service cuts to balance the CTA’s budget. One of those cuts was the #11 bus through Lincoln Park, and it’s making a lot of people angry. Still, on the whole, it’s an impressive achievement.

Seventy years ago, transit agencies decided buses are better than streetcars because the routes can be added, discontinued, or redrawn at any time. Buses are flexible. That’s a big advantage for a transit agency that’s trying to balance its budget in the face of changing demographic trends like urban divestment, suburban sprawl, white flight, and so forth. It’s not the CTA’s job to make the city a better place to live, to help it attract people from the suburbs, or outcompete other cities. The CTA is just supposed to take people where they want to go.

If cancelling the #11 bus means a steep decline in foot traffic on Lincoln Avenue, and businesses fail up and down the street, that’s not the CTA’s fault. If you’re too young or too old to drive, or just too sensible to spend $12,000 a year on a car (the average in Chicago), you’ll have to walk to the L—but that’s not the CTA’s fault. And if Lincoln Avenue becomes a place to drive through instead of a place to live, and that spoils the quality of life and causes property values in the neighborhood to decline, that’s not the CTA’s fault either.

I know Forrest Claypool cares about repopulating the vacated parts of our city and making Chicago easier to get around in. I know he wants to grow the economy and reduce traffic congestion. I know he cares about helping Chicagoans reduce their household debt, waste less on driving, and invest more in real estate or their kids’ education. I know he wants us to be able to take transit to work so we don’t have to spend two or three hours of every workday working to pay for the car that got us there. I know he wants to fix all that. He just needs more tools in the toolbox.

Enter the Streetcar

Cities all over the United States are either building or planning modern streetcar lines. For the most part, they’re not transit projects—other cities don’t have the kind of population density and transit ridership we do in Chicago to make their streetcars cost-effective as transit systems. Instead, American streetcars are usually business and property development initiatives. Everywhere they go in, they increase property values and boost local business. They spark economic growth and urban revitalization.

Why? Because the public commitment to building streetcar infrastructure—to putting tracks in the street—mitigates the risk for developers and investors. It ensures that the location will retain its value regardless of gas prices and recessions. It’s a promise of lasting convenience and walkability for businesses and homeowners alike. That spurs and channels growth all along the streetcar line.

For the CTA, the big advantage of the bus is flexibility. But you don’t want flexibility if you just signed a fifteen-year lease. You don’t want flexibility if you just bought a big apartment, thinking you could afford it because you weren’t going to have to own, maintain, insure, fuel, and park a car. You don’t want flexibility if you’re thinking of investing in a new mixed-use transit-oriented development. The homeowner doesn’t want flexibility, the developer doesn’t want flexibility, and the banker doesn’t want flexibility. Everybody engaged in building up a neighborhood, in making it more vibrant and convenient and fun to live in, wants reliability. Predictability. Commitment. 

The streetcar is not just about taking people where they want to go, it’s about building strong, enduring neighborhoods. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Streetcars make safer streets


Modern streetcars are long, light-rail trains operating at safe speeds on neighborhood streets. They can travel as fast as commuter trains through open countryside to connect outlying suburbs with the city. But in town they slow to 20 or 30 mph—like cars and buses except they’re not stuck in traffic. Because they move predictably along a path clearly marked before them by the rails in the street, a streetcar moving 30 mph is much less dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than a bus moving 30 mph—not to mention a taxi or an SUV with a mom on the phone and kids in the back. At slower speeds streetcars can mix safely with crowds of people on pedestrian shopping streets.


No need to climb stairs to a platform: you can shop while you wait for the train, and board right from the sidewalk. People roll on and off the low-floor vehicles quickly and easily through multiple doors. With electric power they accelerate and brake smoothly, and they don’t pollute the air with diesel fumes. They reduce traffic congestion, boost local business, increase property values, and they’re cheaper to operate than buses. Plus they’re cool.


Friday, June 15, 2012

BRT or streetcar? The choice is about more than just the transit system

There's a lot of debate in transit circles about whether to invest in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or modern streetcars. For high-capacity systems in big cities, BRT costs less to install, but streetcars cost less to operate (the longer trains carry more people per driver and the drivers are 75% of the operating cost). As a result, so far BRT has been more popular in the developing world, where capital is scarce and labor is cheap; wealthier industrialized countries with union wages have preferred the higher up-front costs of a rail system that saves money over the long run.

Bus Rapid Transit in Bogotá, Colombia and modern streetcar in Strasbourg, France.

But the choice is not just between two different transit systems.

Buses and streetcars have very different impacts on the streets in which they operate. Our choice has profound implications for the character of the street--for how attractive it is to people to shop or go out to dinner there, to invest in property or start a business or raise a family there. 

There's a big difference between a line of diesel buses and a long electric streetcar. 

I'm excited that the city of Chicago is investing in upgrading to faster bus service on Western and Ashland: buses that are now stuck in car traffic are going to get a lane of their own. Someday maybe they’ll upgrade further to the "gold standard" of Bus Rapid Transit by investing (a lot) in special buses with multiple doors, raised curbs for level boarding, and big stations for pre-payment. Maybe someday they’ll even spring for hybrid electric buses, which cost three times as much but don’t foul the air as badly as the old-fashioned diesel buses we’ve got today.

The Bus Rapid Transit "gold standard," and what it looks like when it really works.

I hope this really works and a lot of people switch from driving and taxis to riding the bus. If it does really work, this could evolve into a pretty high capacity transit system. If it really works, those buses will be lined up end to end like in Curitiba or Bogotá or Brisbane. That’s fine with me, because I’m not planning on strolling around to shop on Western Avenue, or riding my bike there, or having dinner there at a sidewalk café.

I can’t imagine ever doing any of those things next to a line of buses.

When we upgrade to a high-capacity transit system on the shopping street in my neighborhood, I hope we go with electric streetcars: clean, quiet, and safe.

Good place for BRT.

Good place for streetcars.