Category Archives: Transportation Planning

Three Elements of Portland’s Success

Portland's Pearl District is one of the truly unique neighborhoods on the West Coast

I recently returned from a few days up in Portland, a city well-known as being decades ahead of its peers when it comes to urban planning.  While I wont go into as much detail as my examination of innovative urban policies in Colorado, I took away three primary elements of Portland’s planning paradigm which have helped it to earn the title of most sustainable city year after year.

Element #1: The Urban Growth Boundary

Portland's UGB is the single most important policy in understanding the region's successes.

In Portland, land is a limited resource.  For the past 30 years, Portland has protected farmland and open space by limiting the development of sprawling suburbs and exurbs through strict controls over the location of growth.  When done right, an urban growth boundary can be the single most effective policy to create a livable and sustainable city and region.  By containing sprawl, Portland makes the most of its built environment, which mostly resembles a less-congested Berkeley density-wise.  What really blew me away was the sheer number of vibrant neighborhood commercial streets that were often within only blocks of one another–NW 21st and NW 23rd, Hawthorne and Belmont, not to mention the entire Pearl District–something which could not occur in a more heavily suburbanized region with a greater presence of strip malls.

There are a number of misconceptions that result from Portland’s UGB.  Contrary to the claims of libertarian critics, the UGB has not stopped all growth and led to an unaffordable region; Portland is actually one of the most pro-growth cities in the nation and has made it easy (through progressive zoning codes and parking requirements–see below) for developers to construct high-quality yet affordable housing to meet the demand of the market.  As a result, Portland experienced much less of a boom and bust than cities in California, and currently has a median housing price is 40% that of San Francisco, 60% that of LA, and 80% that of Seattle, making it one of the most affordable cities on the West Coast.

Element #2: Smart Parking Management

A village of food carts lining a surface parking lot in Downtown Portland.

In the Bay Area, parking can turn conservatives into progressives and liberals into Teabaggers.  Because land is a limited resource and Portland must make the most of existing space, Portland has pioneered a number of interesting and innovative parking management practices.  The two most noticeable of these practices are the adaptive reuse of surface parking lots with food carts and the parking management policies around transit.

Unbeknownst to me before my visit, Portland is famous for its food carts, second to only New York City (which has about 14 times the population).  The 400+ carts range from Indian to Cambodian to Mexican to Brazilian and boast some of the best food in the entire city for a price of $5-$7 dollars.  What do food carts have to do with parking management? Whereas surface parking lots are traditionally one of the single biggest causes of blight in cities, Portland’s food carts play a vital role in fostering a vibrant street life where there otherwise would be none.  Food carts make surface parking lots work.

Portland is also a leader in smart parking policies around transit.  While many local governments maintain high parking requirements even in transit-rich areas, new developments in Portland near frequent transit (buses, light rail, and streetcars) have no parking requirements whatsoever.  Keep in mind this does not mean developers have stopped building parking altogether; it simply gives the power of determining parking ratios to developers and the housing market rather than local governments.  Since an average parking space adds $40,000 to the cost of a housing unit, allowing for unbundled parking with lower ratios has a huge effect on housing affordability near transit.  Even in booming areas such as the Pearl District, condos and live-work units currently start under $200,000–try and find that in San Francisco.

Element #3: Cost-Effective Transportation Choices

The Portland Streetcar is the epitome of development-oriented transit.

Portland’s transit system is geared toward providing the greatest amount of economic growth and mobility for the lowest price.  Over the past 15 years, Portland has had an extraordinary streak of New Starts-funded projects, having built five major MAX light rail extensions totaling nearly 38 miles (not to mention the 15 mile regionally-funded WES commuter rail and the 4 mile locally funded Portland Streetcar).  Yet, Portland’s still not finished, with the 3.3 mile Small Starts-funded Eastside Loop for the streetcar, and the 7.3 mile Milwaukie light rail extension, set to be completed by 2012 and 2015, respectively, as well as a 5 mile rapid streetcar extension to Lake Oswego (essentially a cheaper alternative to light rail) currently in planning and aiming to open in 2014.  The total cost of the 68 miles of rail that Portland will add between 1995 and 2015 is about 25% less than the cost of the 32.5 miles of BART extensions that the Bay Area will have had in the same time period (keep in mind these are just rough estimates adjusted for inflation).  Portland has also achieved better returns on its investment, with around three times the ridership as BART’s extensions (once again, semi-rough estimates).  Even with the fuzzy math, twice the mileage and three times the ridership for 3/4 the price is outstanding for TriMet and embarrassing for BART. As I’ve written too many times before, this enviable cost effectiveness is nothing new for other metro regions, but back to transit in Portland…

The most interesting aspect of Portland transit is its use of streetcars.  Portland’s streetcar system has a very specific function not as an urban circulator or glorified bus, but as a tool of placemaking.  When coupled with a progressive form-based zoning code and market-based parking requirements, the results of the streetcar have been staggering.  Since opening in 2001, 10,000 housing units and $4 billion in economic development have occurred within three blocks of the four mile streetcar line, and new districts have emerged such as the Pearl District, which I found to be one of the best urban neighborhoods I’ve ever been to.  For anyone who believes that streetcars are just glorified buses, I urge you to travel to Portland and see the clear difference for yourself.

Conclusion

Portland is still by no means perfect–there are still numerous aspects of the city’s urban fabric that could be improved.  Portland still has it’s fair share of surface parking lots, at times comically surrounding a streetcar line or light rail stops, and transit mode share is still rather low (13% within the city) considering the city’s reputation (non-commute trips seems to be a big source of ridership as well).  I would have liked to see some nicer buses–Portland was one of the first cities to invest in low-floor buses in the 1990s, but now they look pretty outdated compared to AC Transit’s Van Hools.  Portland could also use a greater investment in Rapid Bus/BRT for some of its major corridors.

Above: Portland’s Lloyd District–Surface parking lot heaven, in spite of ample transit access (three light rail lines and a soon-to-be streetcar line)

Nevertheless, Portland has accomplished a feat which few other cities can attest to: creating a compact, affordable region with the right mix of densities and transit modes.  Unlike the Bay Area, Portland doesn’t have “www.trimetrage.com,” “www.trimetsucks.com,” or “www.rescuetrimet.com”–transit just works.  I was not able to spend too much time exploring Portland’s bicycle network, though it’s platinum rating, 8% mode share and ambitious plan for 25% of all trips by 2030 could fill up a number of posts themselves.  Overall, Portland is well on its way to becoming “the best European City in America,” leading other regions (such as the Bay Area) to seek to emulate its success.

More photos on the 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr.

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

30 years ago, Laramier Square looked a lot like Old Oakland, but a series of calculated urbanist policies has made it one of Denver's marquee neighborhoods today.

Old Oakland could use a few tips from Denver's Laramier Square (above)

[The conclusion of a series on urban design in Colorado]

Over the past two weeks I’ve looked at a number of innovative urban planning policies in Colorado, and how these policies have help fostered healthier, more vibrant cities.  Now I’m going to switch back to the Bay Area and look at what we can learn from Colorado.  Below are five lessons that the Bay Area can take away from Colorado:

Lesson 1: Invest in Pedestrians

Across Colorado you’ll find great pedestrian infrastructure–be it Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall or Denver’s artistic pedestrian bridges–but the same cannot be said for the Bay Area.  Palo Alto’s University Avenue and Berkeley’s Center Street are logical starting points when it comes to pedestrian malls–both have been the subject of recent proposals for a Boulder-esque treatments due to their popular commercial districts and their current poor handling of cars, bikes, and pedestrians.  San Francisco has also began to give trial runs for temporary pedestrian plazas, and there’s no reason a pedestrian mall couldn’t work in the Mission or North Beach as well.  One place where I cannot see a pedestrian mall working is Downtown Oakland (I wouldn’t really consider City Center a true pedestrian mall) but half-malls on excessively wide streets could be just as good.  Pedestrian malls can turn good commercial districts into regional destinations and create stronger, more exciting neighborhoods.

A half-pedestrian mall in Denver's LoDo district.  Two of the four lanes on this street were converted to pedestrian space with a negligible effect on traffic.

A half-pedestrian mall in Denver's LoDo district. Two of the four lanes on this street were converted to pedestrian space with a negligible effect on traffic.

Lesson 2: Why Not Experiment with [Free] Transit Malls?

Denver’s 1.2 mile 16th St. Transit Mall generates a whopping 63,000 daily riders and 6% of Denver’s sales tax revenue (tell that to SF merchants who will try to kill a project over a single parking space).  A car-free Market Street with a free shuttle/free transit zone would do wonders for mobility in Downtown San Francisco, and a SoMa and perhaps a Chinatown/Union Square Transit Mall could save the city billions of dollars.  Rather than the 2 billion dollar Central Subway, a SoMa Transit Mall provide a good connection betwen Caltrain and Downtown while encouraging more economic investment at as much as 1/8th of the cost.  If extended to Chinatown and North Beach, San Francisco could have 100,000 people riding on the mall daily.  Obviously, there would be a lot of street access issues that would have to be dealt with, but when the alternative is 2 billion dollars, Denver’s option looks pretty good.

Lesson 3: Activity is Contagious

Colorado’s culture of activity is a self-propagating phenomenon that is drawing more and more people toward biking and walking in their daily lives.  Coloradoans have come to expect walkable, bikeable neighborhoods with nice street trees and plenty of recreational opportunities, and the “if you build it, they will come” effect holds true when you look at the enormous ridership return experienced by Boulder, Fort Collins, and Denver after their moderate investments in bicycle infrastructure.  Bay Area cities need to pursue comprehensive bicycle networks that at least makes every non-arterial street attractive for bicycling.  This means 90% of the streets in Berkeley should have Fort Collins’ “bicycle friendly street” signs, and Oakland should look to turn excess road capacity in Downtown and the entire city into new wide bike lanes.

Lesson 4: Redevelopment Needs a Holistic Approach

The reinvestment and redevelopment of LoDo, Central Platte Valley, and other areas in Denver have been great succeses because of the comprehensive approach taken by the city of Denver and developers.  These areas are truly pedestrian oriented, creating a true sense of place that is essential for any good neighborhood.  If you give people a reason to walk around and enjoy their neighborhood, they will walk around and enjoy it.  If you use the bottom floor for a parking garage, as is the common practice in many new Oakland, Emeryville, and San Francisco developments, then people will not be as active, neighborhoods will not be as safe, and cities will not be as vibrant.

Lesson 5: Be Bold

Bay Area cities are very conservative when it comes to urban planning, balking at any large-scale proposal which would create transit-oriented and pedestrian-oriented streets.  30 years ago, Denver and Oakland would have looked one in the same, but Denver’s ability (as well as Fort Collins’ and Boulder’s abilities) to revitalize its downtown in the last 30 years has push it far ahead.  What makes Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins successful is the bold choices they’ve made (and continue to make) when it comes to reclaiming streets from cars and pursuing projects which put the neighborhood before the driver.   This is not a matter of advocating change for the sake of change–there are real issues at stake and our decisions to stick to the status quo costing us billions and billions of dollars.  Bart to San Jose (7+ billion), the Central Subway (almost 2 billion), the Oakland Airport Connector (half a billion), and a multitude of other projects of questionable merit could be done for a fraction of the cost if we made innovative choices to use more cost-effective technology (such as a functional light rail or commuter rail system) or dedicate a small amount of streetspace to transit.

Lastly, consider this:

For 6.2 billion dollars, Denver will revolutionize its transit system with 140 miles of new light rail, commuter rail, and BRT by 2015.  In comparison, Bart will spend more money on its 16 mile San Jose extension alone, which will not be completed until after 2025.  Something has to change in Bay Area transit planning.  We are being ripped off.

Conclusion:

Colorado today is a truly unique laboratory for innovative policies in urban planning.  While Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins tend to not get much credit for their urbanism, I hope that this series has given their efforts a little justice.  I strongly recommend visiting these cities to see the potential of bicycling, pedestrian malls, nature, and redevelopment can have.

Also See:

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

And more pictures at the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

[Part of a series on urban design in Colorado]

Now that this series is beginning to come to a close (one more post left), it’s time to take a step back at look at the big picture in Colorado.  Over the past five posts I’ve discussed some of Colorado’s sensible and innovative policies to create more vibrant cities that deemphasize the automobile and encourage a healthy, active lifestyle.  One thing that I haven’t really mentioned up to this point is the massive amounts of sprawl occurring in Colorado today.

Sprawl has been a major problem in Colorado since the early Postwar era, and Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins are no exception.  In spite of the cutting-edge policies toward pedestrian/transit malls, bicycling, and other urban design feats, these cities continue to rely on bland tract-style automobile-oriented suburban development.

Whereas sprawl in Fort Collins in the 1960s-1980s still generated a degree of urban form with open neighborhoods and an interconnected street grid, sprawl in the 1990s-present has been mostly walled in, cut off subdivisions which rely on a few major arterial streets.  Old sprawl managed to still foster a strong bicycling culture, due to the wide, slow streets which were built across the city parallel to the fast arterial streets.  However, new sprawl has eliminated these slow side streets, creating mega-blocks of subdivisions and strip malls in which major arterial streets are the only way to get around.  So, while Fort Collins’ transportation policy is working toward becoming more bicycle-friendly, it’s development policy is heading in the opposite direction toward more automobile-oriented suburbs.

Above: Old sprawl in Fort Collins.  The street network remains interconnected and slower, non-arterial streets still connect between neighborhoods

Below: New sprawl in Fort Collins.  Not even Google Maps can keep up with the subdivisions and strip malls sprouting up on what used to be farmland.  Notice the lack of connectivity in the street grid and the reliance on a few major arterial streets.

Boulder has met a similar fate, and recently instituted growth limits to reign in sprawl.  However, the city has not been able to keep up with housing demand through infill development, leading housing prices to increase and more people commuting from neighboring cities.

Fort Collins, on the other hand, has continued to allow sprawl and consequently has remained affordable.  It is important to note that sprawl in Fort Collins is still not nearly as bad compared to sprawl in the Bay Area’s outer rim (Antioch, Livermore, Fairfield, etc.) from an energy and environmental perspective–it’s almost impossible to make a trip in Fort Collins that’s greater than 5 miles, so the overall vehicle miles traveled is very low for the majority of its residents.  Yet, while Fort Collins has not installed growth limits, concerns over traffic, consumption of farmland and open space, and loss of city character has driven the city to alter its development policy with the creation of the Mason Street Corridor.

Following a general trend across Colorado of improving transportation infrastructure, Fort Collins is set to turn its abandoned rail corridor into a new BRT line and multi-use trail.  The $80 million dollar project will tie together Downtown, Colorado State University, and the southern commercial and business districts while at the same time serving as a guide for future growth (to see a corny video, click here).  While this idea has been around for 30 years now, Fort Collins’ committment to opening the corridor by 2011 puts it way ahead of many similar BRT projects across the country.

While Fort Collins’ project might seem small, Denver’s ambitious $6.2 billion FasTracks program will fundamentally transform the region.  In 11 seperate projects, Denver will add 140 miles of new light rail, commuter rail, and BRT in the next 7 years in an aggressive program that will give Denver the largest light rail system in the U.S. and one of the first DMU/EMU commuter rail systems.

Denvers 6.2 billion dollar FasTracks program will add a whopping 140 miles of light rail, commuter rail, and BRT over the next 7 years.

Denver's 6.2 billion dollar FasTracks program will add a whopping 140 miles of light rail, commuter rail, and BRT over the next 7 years. See current map here. Map courtesy of Steve Boland at SFCityscape

FasTracks will also bring a rail connection to Denver’s new Stapleton development.  A Calthorpe project, the redevelopment of the former airport is the largest redevelopment project in the U.S., expected to add 13,000 new housing units (which is equivalent to probably 30,000 people).  I unfortuneatly didn’t get the chance to visit Stapleton, but you can learn more about it here.

In true New Urbanist fashion, Stapleton offers a mix of single family housing, condos, commercial space, and office space,

In true New Urbanist fashion, Stapleton offers a mix of housing, shops, and offices.

The last major project that will transform Colorado is intercity rail.  Currently, the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority is studying the potential of a rail network spanning across the Front Range Urban Corridor and along the I-70 corridor to connect with major recreational destinations in the Rockies.  The Fort Collins-Boulder-Denver-Colorado Springs corridor could potentially be high-speed (meaning at least 110mph+).  Either way, a good intercity rail network in Colorado is badly needed, and would further aid Colorado in better managing its growth in the coming decades and developing more sustainable and livable cities in the future.

Areas under study for an intercity rail network in Colorado.

Areas under study for an intercity rail network in Colorado.

In spite of its continuing struggle against sprawl, Colorado is well on its way to becoming a leader in Smart Growth and transportation planning.  In the next post, which will be the last of this series, we’ll look at what lessons the Bay Area and California as a whole can take away from Colorado.

Also See:

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

And more pictures at the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

The Central Platte Valley District is nothing short of an urban design masterpiece

Denver's new Central Platte Valley District is nothing short of an urban design masterpiece

[Part of a series on urban design in Colorado]

So far in this series I have examined three elements of Colorado’s cities–pedestrian malls, an active populace, and nature.  Really, these elements are not separate at all and tie into one-another: great pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure with plenty of trees and streams will make people want to get outside and take advantage of such a pleasant setting.  Therefore, it’s no coincidence that Colorado has such a strong culture of activity and such a low obesity rate.  But up until now I’ve mostly looked at Downtowns and suburban areas, rather than urban neighborhoods.  Why?  Because I had to save the best for last.

10 years ago, Denver’s Central Platte Valley district was nothing more than a blighted wasteland that served as an eyesore to the rest of the Downtown area.  While the area boasted a great location immediately adjacent to the trendy LoDo and Highland districts, Coors Field, the Pepsi Center, and Downtown, any redevelopment faced the enormous challenge of dealing with four barriers which fragmented the district and isolated it from adjacent neighborhoods: two rail lines, a river, and a freeway.

In spite of these challenges, Denver set the ambitious goal of adding 3,000 new housing units, four parks, a new light rail transit center, and more than 3 million square feet of commercial and office space in this area of less than one square mile.  How has Denver accomplished this goal without creating a traffic disaster?  By making the area almost entirely pedestrian and bicycle oriented.

The fragmented pieces of land in Central Platte Valley are joined together by three brand-new pedestrian bridges which connect the district to the LoDo and Highland districts and line up with the 16th Street Transit Mall.  Not only are the bridges beautifully designed and conducive of walking by themselves, they serves as the fastest and most-direct link to downtown and between neighborhoods.  Development is centered along the pedestrian mall created by the trio of bridges, making walking and bicycling truly the modes of choice in the area.

Commons Park, with the Mellenium Bridge in the background.

Commons Park, with the Mellenium Bridge in the background.

The Platte River Bridge, with the Highland Bridge in the background.

The Platte River Bridge, with the Highland Bridge in the background.

The Highland Bridge, one of three pedestrian bridges along 16th St. in the Central Platte Valley District

The Highland Bridge

Central Platte Valley is also oriented around the natural assets of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek.  Apart from the great riverfront bike trails which I already discussed, Central Platte Valley has an absolute gem in Confluence Park, a new beach right in the middle of Central Platte Valley at the site of Denver’s founding 151 years ago:

Nothing beats a trip to the "beach" on a hot summer day in Denver.

Nothing beats a trip to the "beach" on a hot summer day in Denver.

The last piece in the transformation of Central Platte Valley is the redevelopment of Union Station, which will become its own district in itself.  Just behind the actual train station is a giant piece of land that will soon house the new transit center, another pedestrian bridge, and the remaining 1,000 new housing units along with lots of commercial space and a new hotel.  Once complete, the are will have much-improved transit facilities seamless connection to LoDo and Downtown.

The giant chunk of land behind Union Station will be the final piece in redevelopment.

This giant chunk of land behind Union Station will be the final piece in redevelopment...

...Which will be transformed into a pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhood

...Which will become a new pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhood

UPDATE: Construction on the new Union Station area just began September 7th.  Check out the project’s new website here.

While the planning process for redevelopment began back in the 1980s, the magnitude of what Denver has accomplished in the last 10 years is simply amazing.  Central Platte Valley had a sense of cohesiveness and vibrancy to it that few other large-scale redevelopment projects have, and it is one of the best examples in the country of how to create a lively new neighborhood from scratch.

If you’re interested in Denver’s redevelopment, I strongly recommend you check out www.denverinfill.com, which provides an excellent summary of every major redevelopment project happening in Denver.

Also See:

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

And more pictures at the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

One of many, many bike shops in Fort Collins

One of many, many bike shops in Fort Collins

[Part of a series on urban design in Colorado]

Another reason why Colorado’s pedestrian malls work so well is that Coloradoans are among the most active people in the nation, creating a ‘culture of activity’ that ingrains walking and bicycling into the daily lives of its citizens.

It’s no coincidence that Colorado has the lowest obesity rate out of all 50 states–the state offers some of the best skiing, rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking in the nation.  But Coloradoans do not restrict physical activity just to weekend outings.  They carry their active lifestyle into their daily lives.

Colorado cities are built for physical activity, with plenty of parks, trails, bike routes, and walkable downtowns.  In spite of the sprawling nature of Boulder, Fort Collins, and Denver, the three cities have thriving bicycling cultures and some of the most developed systems and highest mode shares in the nation:

City                   Population        Bike Route Miles        Bike Trail Miles     Mode Share

Boulder*                  103,000                   300+                               100+                             9%

Fort Collins*        137,000                    280+                                 30+                              6%

Denver                    599,000                    350+                                100+                             6%

Berkeley*                100,000                    115+                                 <10                              6%

San Francisco      809,000                    200+                                20+                               4%

*Measuring college towns is always tricky, since it only partially takes into account students and their behavior.

These cities really go above and beyond the status quo for bicyclists, including Boulder’s bicycle trip planner and Denver’s award-winning bicycle map, and soon-to-be-launched bike sharing program.  In Fort Collins, where my grandfather founded the city’s first bike shop in 1963, literally every street has a bike lane.  Granted, some of the bike lanes on the ten or so main arterial streets aren’t that great, but what’s really impressive is that even in its suburban sprawl, each street has been designed to be bicycle-friendly, with wide bike lanes/shoulders and clear “bikeway” signs (in comparison to our tiny signs).  It’s no coincidence that Boulder is one of three platinum-rated bicycling cities (the other two being Portland and Davis), and Fort Collins is Gold-rated (Denver didn’t apply, I guess?).

Stover Street in Fort Collins, one of many slow, wide, bicycle-friendly streets.

One of the most amazing parts about Denver, Fort Collins, and Boulder is that they’re not afraid to spend and experiment on bicycle improvements.  Their networks and amenities keep expanding, and they keep pushing eachother to come up with better infrastructure.

Bike parking

A parking space converted for bike parking in Downtown Fort Collins. One parking space can hold 10 bicycles.

Boulder's famous contra-flow bike lane

Boulder's innovative contra-flow bike lane

Denver's Platte River Trail, part of an extraordinary network of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in the central-city.  More on this in the next post.

Denver's Platte River Trail, part of an extraordinary network of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in the central-city. More on this in a later post.

The result of Colorado’s investments in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is that Coloradoans are often just as active on weekdays as they are on weekends, and wind up being much healthier than Americans as a whole.  An essential part of reducing healthcare costs and improving public health is regular physical activity, as I just wrote in an article entitled “Redesign Neighborhoods to Reform Healthcare” in this month’s Northern News for the Northern California Chapter of the American Planning Association.  Colorado is well ahead of the curve on creating a culture of activity for a healthy population.

An adaptive reuse of an old parking meter in Boulder.  Sometimes it's the little details that lead people to bike more.

An adaptive reuse of an old parking meter in Boulder. Sometimes it's the little details that lead people to bike more.

Also See:

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

And don’t forget the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr!

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

The Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall in Boulder was the first of its kind in Colorado

Lined with trees, flowers, and local storefronts, Boulder's Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall was the first of its kind in Colorado

[Part of a series on urban design in Colorado]

Back in the 1970s, Colorado’s cities were facing a crisis familiar to cities across the nation: rapid sprawling growth caused an abrupt decline in downtown business districts, eliminating small businesses and damaging the cities’ character.  This issue was especially important to the cities of Boulder, Fort Collins, and Denver, which had major institutions (University of Colorado, Colorado State University, and the state’s business and financial center, respectively) which relied on strong downtowns.

Boulder took the lead in solving this crisis in 1977 with the bold action of closing its main street, Pearl Street, to cars and creating a pedestrian mall.  Denver and Fort Collins soon followed suit, with Denver’s 16th Street Transit Mall opening in 1982, and Fort Collins’ Old Town Square opening in 1984.

The creation of Old Town Square in Fort Collins in 1984 has led to a booming downtown real estate market

The creation of Old Town Square in Fort Collins in 1984 has led to a booming downtown real estate market

When these malls were built, they were built to last.  In contrast to the large number of failed pedestrian malls across the country (such as Sacramento’s and Boston’s) which essentially closed streets off to cars but otherwise left things the same, Boulder, Denver, and Fort Collins dramatically changed their streetscapes to create a unique sense of place.  Playing off each city’s environmental and cultural assets, the mature trees, colorful flowers, public art, historic buildings, and unorthodox street layouts helped foster environments in which local offices, shops, bars, and cafes could thrive.  The diverse uses of these downtowns allowed them to become destinations for businessmen, college students, and local residents alike.

Denver’s 16th Street Transit Mall is particularly impressive because of its enormous success against the odds.  Much of Downtown Denver resembles an uglier version of Downtown Oakland–wide, one way streets with big bland office buildings and surface parking lots.  Yet, in this environment, the excellent landscaping and pedestrian-friendly development along the 16th Street Transit Mall has given Denver one of the most vibrant downtowns in the country.

Downtown Denver's wide one-way streets and giant, bland office buildings resembles Downtown Oakland.

Downtown Denver's wide one-way streets and giant, bland office buildings isn't exactly an urban paradise...

...But the 16th Street Transit Mall has breathed life into Downtown--even on a Sunday

...But the 16th Street Transit Mall has breathed life into Downtown--even on a Sunday

The 1.25 mile transit mall connects Union Station, LoDo, the RTD transit center, Downtown, RTD light rail, and the Civic Center/state capitol with a free four-door bus that stops about every block.  While the transit mall ends at Union Station, a pedestrian mall extends another half mile into a series of brand new pedestrian and bicycle-oriented loft-style neighborhoods (more on this area later in this series).  The result is a cohesive, transit-oriented downtown that is now undergoing considerable redevelopment.

A four-door, free-fare bus on the 16th Street Transit Mall

A four-door, free-fare bus on the 16th Street Transit Mall

Three decades after the creation of their pedestrian malls, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Denver are once agian focused around their downtown business districts.  While sprawling development continues to occur in these areas, their bicycle networks and smart growth policies (especially Denver’s) are steadily transforming these cities into some of the healthiest and greenest cities in the nation.  Stay tuned for the next post.

Also see:

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

And don’t forget the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr!

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

The 16th St. Transit Mall in Denver is just one example of the outstanding urban design which I encountered in Colorado

The 16th St. Transit Mall in Denver is just one example of the outstanding urban design which I encountered in Colorado

Colorado is not always a state that comes to mind when you think of progressive urban policies, but having spent the past week exploring the cities of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Denver, Colorado has become one of the most cutting edge states when it comes to urbanism.  Granted, I am by no means saying that Colorado cities are even near perfect; in fact, cities on the Front Range have experienced a tremendous amount of sprawling growth over the past few decades which now threatens to consume a significant portion of the farmland and open space along the I-25 corridor.  But while urbanist projects in the Bay Area have been caught up in political battles and bureaucratic red tape, cities across Colorado have managed to accomplish numerous recent projects which have put them at the forefront of livability and sustainability.

Most of Colorado’s population lies along the Front Range urban corridor, with 3.1 million of the state’s 4.9 million people living along the 75 mile stretch of I-25 between the Denver Metro area and Fort Collins, and an additional 1.1 million in the adjacent 100 miles (including Colorado Springs and Cheyenne, Wyoming).

Three overarching aspects of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Denver put these cities years ahead of the Bay Area: pedestrian malls and public spaces, bicycle friendliness, and smart redevelopment.  I plan on discussing each of these topics in the following days, as well as their implications for Colorado’s future and what the Bay Area can learn from them.

Also, I would like to draw your attention to the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr, in which you can view pictures from my trip to Colorado along with other photos as they come.  Enjoy!

Boulder, along with Fort Collins and Denver, has an extensive network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure which helps foster an active and green populace

Boulder, along with Fort Collins and Denver, has an extensive network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure which helps foster an active and green populace

Also See:

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

Bay Area Transit Efficiency: How Bart, Caltrain, VTA Light Rail, and Muni Metro Stack Up

Over the past few decades, the Bay Area’s four major rail systems–Bart, Caltrain, Muni Metro, and VTA Light Rail–have competed for transit funding on the federal, state, and regional levels.  Overall, Bart and VTA have been the overwhelming winners with numerous new extensions, Muni Metro has received some improvements and one extension, and little has changed for Caltrain.  Yet, Caltrain will receive the most dramatic makeover in the next decade with grade separations and electrification from HSR.  How do these systems stack up against one another and their peers nationwide?  This post will attempt to come up with an answer.

Comparing Nationwide Transit Efficiency

Obviously there are many criteria to judge a rail system by, such as initial cost per passenger, initial cost per mile, farebox recovery, TOD impact, etc., but I will focus on one of the most telling metrics of the efficiency of a mass transit system: the ridership per mile of a given transit line.  Ridership per mile allows for easy comparisons between the ridership of like transit systems regardless of the size of a system–rather than just showing total ridership, it shows the ridership density on a given line or system.  Rapid transit (often subway) systems have the highest ridership per mile, since surrounding population density leads to a highly concentrated ridership base and justifies the higher capital costs.  Compact streetcar systems have the next highest ridership per mile, followed by more spread out light rail systems, and finally commuter rail systems.

Let’s take a look at some comparisons between rapid transit, light rail, commuter rail, and streetcar systems nationwide:

Rapid Transit Systems

System                                                 Ridership      Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    NYC Subway                                7,624,300              229                    33,294
2    PATH (NYC)                                   242,000               13.8                    17,572
3    SEPTA (Philadelphia)                 326,300                 25                      13,052
4    MBTA (Boston)                             470,200                38                       12,374
5    WMATA (Washington D.C.)      987,100             106.3                     9,286
6    Los Angeles Metro                       144,400              17.4                       8,299
7    Chicago ‘L’                                       622,400              107.5                    5,790
8    MARTA (Atlanta)                         254,800               47.6                      5,353
9    BART                                   363,100           104                  3,491
10    Baltimore Metro                           50,900              15.5                        3,284

What’s interesting here is that while Bart has the 5th highest ridership for nationwide rapid transit systems, its efficiency is only 9th as a result of its sprawling suburban lines, meaning for every one mile of rail for WMATA in Washinton D.C. or MBTA in Boston, Bart needs almost three and four miles, respectively.  Bart’s low ridership per mile also means that Bart extensions are generally not nearly as cost-effective as many of its peer systems.

Commuter Rail Systems

System                                                                 Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    Metro-North Railroad (NYC)                   265,000              384                    690
2    Metra (Chicago)                                          316,000               495                    638
3    Long Island Railroad (NY)                     367,500              700                    511
4    Caltrain                                            39,100            77             508
5    SEPTA Regional Rail (Philadelphia)     118,600               291                   408
6    MBTA Commuter Rail (Boston)             149,900               368                   407
7    Trinity Railway (Dallas-Fort Worth)     10,000                 34                    294
8    New Jersey Rail                                           276,000               951                   290

So, while Caltrain’s ridership is noticeably lower than other commuter rail systems, it is still the (just barely) 4th most efficient system in the nation.  However, if you take away the 6 trains to Gilroy (which add 25 miles but only about 500 riders), Caltrain’s efficiency becomes 752 passengers per mile, making it the most efficient system in the nation.  Caltrain’s extremely high efficiency speaks to the fact that Caltrain operates more like a single light rail line than a sprawling commuter rail system (even though Caltrain has never had the capital investment that a light rail line would have).  Electrification, grade separations, TOD, and the Downtown SF extension should more than double Caltrain’s ridership by 2025, putting it on par with other light rail systems:

Light Rail Systems

System                                                        Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    Boston                                                   222,400             25.4                     7,943

Muni Metro                                154,300        29               5,321

3    METRORail  (Houston)                     38,800               7.5                      5,173
4    Buffalo Metro Rail                               23,200               6.4                      3,625
5    Los Angeles Light Rail                     135,800             55.7                     2,438
6    MAX Light Rail (Portland)             103,500               44                       2,352
7    UTA TRAX (Salt Lake City)               43,200               19                       2,274
8    Hiawatha Line (Minneapolis)          26,500               12                       2,208
9    LYNX Rapid Transit (Charlotte)     19,700             9.6                       2,052
10    Denver RTD                                             68,800             35                      1,966
11    Newark Light Rail                               19,050             9.9                        1,924

24    VTA Light Rail                         37,500          42.2            780

Ironically, even with the millions of dollars invested into VTA’s Light Rail system, it is still just as efficient as Caltrain.  Muni Metro’s efficiency is extremely high, and could be higher if not for the routes which originally had light rail but were changed to buses back in the 1950s–the Geary and Mission corridors have 100,000+ daily riders (including adjacent lines), but are stuck with buses, while all Muni Metro lines (except the N-Judah) have less than 30,000 daily riders.  These lines were saved in the early postwar era because of their tunnel infrastructure (to travel to more suburban areas) while lines along Geary, Mission, and Columbus were scrapped.

Streetcar Systems

System                                                                    Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile

1    F Line (San Francisco)                   20,000          5.1               3,884
2    Portland Streetcar                                           12,000              3.9                     3,000
3    Tacoma Link                                                         3,100              1.6                      1,938
4    South Lake Union Streetcar (Seattle)         1,780              1.3                     1,369

5    RTA Streetcar (New Orleans)                      13,900             21.5                    647

6   TECO Line Streetcar System (Tampa)         1,082              2.3                     470

Comparing Transit Efficiency in the Bay Area

So we’ve got that Caltrain is very efficient for a commuter rail system, Muni Metro and Bart are mediocre, and VTA light rail is pretty bad.  But, the biggest variable in this analysis is cost–Bart costs more than more than Muni Metro, which costs more than VTA Light Rail, which costs more than Caltrain.  Would it be possible to eliminate cost as a variable?  Here are some estimates of cost per mile for some recent and future projects to get a feel for what it would cost to build a brand new line in each of the four systems:

Project                                          Length               Cost            Cost per Mile

Bart to San Jose                            21              $7 billion       $333 million

T-Third Muni Metro Line         5.1           $648 million     $127 million

VTA extensions*                        15.6             $334 million    $69 million

Caltrain Upgrades**                  53.2         $3.378 billion    $63.5 million

*Vasona, Capitol, Tasman East, Capitol Expy extensions

**To be shared about evenly with HSR, which applied for $1.647 billion worth of HSR stimulus funds.  Caltrain’s share could be viewed as $1.731 billion, or $32.5 million per mile.

Now, here’s where the calculations get a little shaky, and highly theoretical.  Let’s establish an arbitrary base cost of $100 million per mile, and adjust ridership for each of the four systems accordingly.

(Base cost per mile/actual cost per mile) x (riders per mile)=adjusted riders per mile

Bart: (100/333) x (3491)=1048.3

Muni Metro: (100/127) x (5321)=4190

VTA Light Rail: (100/69) x (780)=1130.4

Caltrain: (100/63.5) x (752)=1184

Before I discuss what thse calculations mean, there are many ways in which this analysis comes waaaay short:

1. Different types of projects: I am comparing apples to oranges with some new future ROW aquisitions (Bart), existing past ROW but new rail (Muni Metro and VTA Light Rail), heavy future modifications with some ROW aquisition (Caltrain), future subway vs. past surface costs (some for Bart and Caltrain vs. hardly none for VTA and Muni), and different years of completion (all).

2. Ridership impact: the T-Third line and three of the four VTA lines have already had their ridership impact.  While these new lines are more or less consistent overall with the system’s ridership per mile, new ridership from Caltrain’s improvements has not even been factored in (as I’ve said, likely doubling ridership and perhaps putting the adjusted figure in the 2300s, and assuming half the cost goes to HSR puts the adjusted figure in the 4600s!).  While Bart to San Jose’s ridership numbers are questionable, either way both the system impact and the impact of the individual line wouldn’t affect Bart’s numbers very much.

3. Frequency of trains: Of the four systems here, Caltrain is currently at a major disadvantage when it comes to frequency of trains, which has a significant impact on ridership.  Systems with greater frequency hands down get more riders.

4. Operating cost: this analysis ignores operating cost, which for rail systems is fairly low compared to initial capital costs, but can add up over time.

Is this post just a bunch of wild estimates and speculations? Yes, but I think this is about as good of a comparison as is possible under a multitude of constraints.

So what on earth can this comparison tell us?  Well, in spite of the murky details, it appears that Muni Metro blows other Bay Area transit agencies away when it comes to cost-effectiveness, and Caltrain will probably be on par with Muni Metro’s efficiency within the next decade.  VTA Light Rail and Bart are the least efficient systems in the Bay Area for their price (only 1/4th as efficient as Muni Metr0) and therefore are using inappropriate transit modes for the ridership needs.  Nationwide, Muni Metro is extraordinary, and Caltrain performs extremely well for a commuter rail system.  Investments in the next ten years will put Caltrain on par with many light rail systems at a fraction of the cost.  Bart performs poorly nationwide compared with its peers, and spends a lot more money to get its riders than other rapid transit systems as well as other rail systems in the Bay Area.  This means that for Bart to become more efficient, it must look at improving station capacity (such as the horrible configurations at the 16th & Mission and 24th & Mission stations) and infill stations (30th & Mission, San Antonio, and Albany)  rather than the fringe eBart and Livermore extensions and the questionable and very costly San Jose extension (please check out Bart Boardmember and Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich’s article for more on improving transit sustainability).

The True Cost of Driving

How much does each one of these drivers spend per mile?

How much does each one of these drivers spend per mile?

When I was researching for my last project (see last post), I stumbled across this calculator for the true cost of driving created by Santa Cruz County’s “Commute Solutions” program.  This is the best attempt I’ve seen to fully quantify the multitude of costs associated with driving, since it factors in not only the cost of the car, fuel, insurance, maintenance, and fees, but also infrastructure, congestion, pollution, parking, accidents, land value, and other indirect costs.  According to this model, the average cost on an individual driving 10,000 miles per year is somewhere in the range of $12,000-13,000, and the average cost for 20,000 miles per year is $26,000 (AAA determines that about 8,300 of this is direct costs).

While actual costs vary from place to place and depending on fuel prices, after some analysis I’ve arrived at some staggering conclusions.    When multiplying the average cost per mile of $1.28 (by default assuming current prices of about $2.25/gal) by 240 trillion yearly vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which is a rough estimate of the current total, and America’s total yearly cost of driving is $3.7 trillion , or a whopping 25% of our GDP (the actual yearly figures are likely in the range of $3.25-4 trillion).  Just pause and think about that for a second: one out of every four dollars in America is spent on driving.  Should Americans have to spend that much on transportation?  What does this mean for lower income Americans?  Also, a 10% reduction in driving would save up to 400 billion per year, and a 25% reduction would save almost one trillion per year.

That’s a lot of money.