Posts Tagged: Light Rail



The Netherlands’ Randstadrail

The Randstadrail. Image by flickr user Sytske_R.

Architects and urban designers may be no fans of elevated transport infrastructure and fair enough. Rarely is the overhead viaduct, rail bridge or elevated freeway a contributor to the urban form.

Typically, they sap the very life out of the surrounding area.

Notwithstanding that argument, however, is the fact that tunnelling is remarkably more expensive than building overhead transport infrastructure while providing the exact same quality and level of service.

Plus there’s the question of the view – but that’s something for a whole other post.

Now if the architects and urban designers of the world were willing to open their own wallets to make up for the difference in price between elevated and tunnelled transport infrastructure, then tunnels it is. But until that unlikely day ever arrives, elevated transport infrastructure is likely to be the preferred means of providing fully-dedicated rights-of-way for public transit in the near future . . . at least in places where virtual slave labour can’t be used to build said tunnels.

The entire problem with the elevated versus buried argument is the logical fallacy both sides present. The buried proponents argue that elevated infrastructure is inherently ugly and detrimental to the urban form and it’s a hard argument to refute when you see things like Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway or the Chicago El. But the argument breaks down because the fact that most elevated infrastructure is ugly doesn’t mean all elevated infrastructure must be ugly.

As I’ve argued before, ugly is an opportunity to be beautiful and elevated can be beautiful.

The elevated proponents, meanwhile, don’t do themselves any favours by consistently producing and constructing some of the most ugly and intrusive infrastructure ever unleashed on the urban form. You can’t claim that a piece of infrastructure will help a community when a great many historical examples have destroyed, decimated and cut-up pre-existing communities.

Let’s be frank here: Most elevated transport infrastructure is ugly and it’s therefore no surprise that architects and urban designers get all up in arms whenever a new one is proposed for any city. Just look at the debate over Honolulu’s new LRT line over at The Transport Politic here and here.

Which brings me to the Netherlands new light rail systems the Randstadrail. Opened in phases over the second half of the last decade, it connects The Hague with Rotterdam. While most of the Rotterdam system is underground, much of the track infrastructure in the Hague is elevated. And unlike most standard elevated tracks, these are elevated not just physically, but aesthetically as well. Take a look:

A Randstadrail station as integrated into a pedestrianized plaza. Image by deVos.

Note how the overhead rails don’t overwhelm the sidewalk below. There’s an elegant, almost beautiful interplay between street, rail and service. Image by flickr user Daniel Sparing.

An entrance up to the Randstadrail. Image by flickr user Daniel Sparing.

A train departs a Randstadrail station. Image by flickr user Ferdi’s-World.

From underneath the Randstadrail. The lattice work creates a sculptural effect that is almost organic. Notice too the space for pedestrians and the lack of support columns. Image by flickr user Gerard Stolk.

It’s an interesting example of using the elevated track as a visual cue, guide and corridor. It seems designed to play with the pedestrian at street level as much as it is designed to move people above street level.

Will elevated infrastructure work everywhere? Of course not. Some urban form dictates that elevated infrastructure is completely inappropriate and impossible. But at the same time, if one considers geologic and economic factors, some environments are completely inappropriate for tunneled infrastructure too.

At the end of the day architects and urban designers have a responsibility to understand the financial constraints cities face and cannot disregard all elevated structures simply because they’re “ugly.” After all, an architect’s or an urban designer’s job is to make the urban form beautiful within the structural, political, environmental and economic factors of the day. For an architect or urban designer to willfully ignore something as viable as elevated transport infrastructure simply on the grounds of aesthetics is to admit that they possess a severe lack of creativity and are quite likely just not very good at their jobs.

To draw an analogy: If you were bad at chemistry, would you run around claiming chemistry to be stupid, useless, harmful or ugly? Or would you instead rely upon people who actually did understand chemistry and knew how to use it responsibly?

Hopefully this current debate subsides in the near future. It’s harmful and it’s wasteful. Hopefully as the internet allows us to easily peer into the backyards and intersections of the world, systems like the Randstadrail in The Hague and projects like Zürich’s Im Viadukt will gain notice and can go a long way to showing the world that elevated infrastructure can be more, shall we say, elevated.

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Transit Aesthetics – AutoTram / BusRail

Can the AutoTram revolutionize the way we think about transit planning? Image from

When a city plan is planning a new transit infrastructure project, a lot of time is often spent deliberating over which technology should be implemented. This discussion generally floats back and for between bus and rail (and more recently, sometimes even CPT). For many cash-strapped cities looking for quick wins and cost-effective mass transit solutions, the debate often settles on the mid-tier options, namely bus (BRT) and lightrail/streetcar opportunities (HRT tends to be too expensive and time-consuming to construct.) Amongst the many debate points — capacity, aesthetics, speed, cost, etc. — proponents of both technologies claim their technology is superior.

From my personal experience (your experience may be different), based on conversations with transit planners, engineers, operators and average joes, one of the biggest arguments in favour of LRT is its aesthetics. You can go on and on about all the capabilities and characteristics of modern bus technology, but in the end, a bus is still a bus.

But what makes a bus, such a bus? Its shape? Size? Look? Smell? Other than rubber on road vs steel on rail, what if a bus could be completely remodeled and redesigned to look and feel like LRT? Would this make it as attractive as LRT, and therefore able to attract just as much new transit riders as the rail systems claim?

The Fraunhofer Institute decided to find out. In 2005 they introduced the AutoTram — essentially a road-based LRT. The makers of this technology describe it as:

“… [it] combines features of conventional buses (e.g. high flexibility, low infrastructure costs and moderate life cycle costs) with the advantages of trams like high transport capacity, driving comfort and the possibility of partial emission-free operation.”

Could the AutoTram succeed and if it does, what does this mean for the future of light rail and transit planning?

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Luminus via Tractus by Steven Dale


Rendering of the under-construction Blue Light Rail line in Lagos, Nigeria. Image via

Remember: Light Rail Transit (LRT) isn’t always Light Rail Transit. And that goes for all forms of public transportation.

Anyone recall our CPT / ART debate?

While we may like to pretend we work and live in a scientific field, the world of city-building and transit is anything but scientific.After all, there’s no official taxonomy of public transit technologies and I doubt we’ll see one anytime soon. (Note: While Vukan Vuchic’s Urban Transit textbooks have helped a lot in resolving this issue, even he admits to the slipperiness of transit vehicle definitions.)

Maybe we need a more defined definition of Light Rail Transit (Luminus via Tractus perhaps?), but until that time comes it’s important for everyone understand that the definition of a public transit technology isn’t arbitrary and objective – it’s subjective and as much about marketing as it is about anything else.

Consider the under-construction Blue LRT line in Lagos, Nigeria.

This system has confused more than a few people as all estimates of ridership suggest something far more robust than LRT (Yonah Freemark hints at this confusion in a post from a couple years back). From a technology perspective it’s virtually impossible to imagine any single LRT system carrying half a million riders per day (as this Lagos State Government document suggests), yet all the imagery (see above for example) and reports (see previous link for example) categorically reinforce the idea that Lagos’ first urban rail line is to be LRT in nature.

But it’s not. And we know that because of this:

Last week Railways Africa reported that Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola has visited Toronto, Canada and is prepared to purchase a fleet of 15-year-old decommissioned subway cars in order to service the “light rail project.” The subway cars in question look like this:

"Light" Rail. Image by flickr user Loozrboy.

This is Heavy Rail Transit (HRT). Or Subway Transit. Or Metro Transit. Or Whatever You Want To Call It Transit (WYWTCIT) – but it’s clearly not Light Rail. There’s obviously a disconnect here between one person’s definition of Light Rail and another people’s definition.

That’s not to suggest nefarious doings or shenanigans on the part of anyone. It’s just to point out that when you read statistics about any given transportation technology, it’s important to consider the lens with which those statistics are being viewed through.

Calling Heavy Rail “light” doesn’t make it weigh any less.

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Speed Is Not Dependent Upon Technology

The Toronto Star reports today that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and a waterfront development agency are at loggerheads over a planned new streetcar corridor.

The essence of the conflict is this:

The Toronto Transit Commission wants to experiment with track design on a new streetcar route to speed up Toronto’s failingly low streetcar speeds (between 10 and 12 km/hr, on average). Their solution is to place both track directions on the North side of Queens Quay (a major waterfront boulevard), and place both directions of vehicular traffic on the south side.

(Note: Traditionally, streetcars are placed in the center of a roadway with – say – eastbound streetcars moving on the same side of the street as eastbound traffic and westbound streetcars moving on the same side of the street as westbound traffic).

Neither the TTC nor the article offered an explanation as to how, why, or if this plan would increase average streetcar speeds. Nevertheless, TTC officials quoted in the article claim that according to their plan streetcars would experience average speeds of 13 – 15 km/hr, a significant speed premium.

Waterfront Toronto (the development agency), however, envisions a 3 km long stretch of Queen’s Quay  with up to 20 separate traffic lights to contend with the myriad of developments they have in the area. Of course this 3 km long stretch of roadway is the same as that which is to be used for the TTC’s new streetcar line.

For those who are counting, Waterfront Toronto’s plan would result in 1 traffic light every 150 meters.

TTC officials state that so many traffic lights would result in a streetcar line “even slower” than other Toronto streetcars (those within the 10 – 12 km/hr range).

Waterfront Toronto officials, however, contend that their plan for having extended greens and transit signal priority (TSP) schemes along the stretch would result in average speeds of 16.6 – 19.5 km/hr.

As I’ve argued before, transit signal priority schemes have a very dubious track record and there is little consensus about whether the technologies actually work (at least in a North American sense). At best, TSP seems to reduce travel times (and increase travel speeds) by around 6 – 10%. At worst, it actually increases travel times and reduces speed.

Waterfront Toronto, however, is convinced that their TSP plan would result in an increase in travel times of roughly 65%. This speed increase, meanwhile, would be realized in a corridor with 43% more traffic lights than some of the most congested sections in all of downtown Toronto.

The TTC accurately described the plan as “death by a thousand cuts.”

Something doesn’t make sense here. Both Waterfront Toronto and the TTC cannot be right. Both could however be wrong. That they differ in their opinions so widely suggests someone’s (or both’s) forecasting models are severely flawed.

At the end of the day, what this quibble shows is this: Road based transit speed has almost nothing to do with technology choice. Speed and travel times is dependent almost entirely on how the technology is implemented in relation to its surrounding environs.

Transit enthusiasts, advocates, planners and researchers need to get out of the habit of saying their technology preference is the fastest. After all, as the above demonstrates, your technology preference could be the fastest but it could also be the slowest.

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Squaw Valley Funitel Stats

Kelly writes,

I am also interested in cable propelled transit and am a big fan of The Gondola Project. Anyway, I just worked out some numbers on the Funitel at the resort where I work (Squaw Valley) and I thought I would share them with you.

Squaw Valley Stats

  • 28 legal limit (This would be a crazy crush load)
  • 18 normal mixed load – 9 seated and 9 standing (this is pretty typical, if there is a small line this is about how many people naturally pack into a car)
  • 9 seated comfortably (kids sometimes squeeze 15 but adults who don’t know each other usually won’t sit more than 9)
  • 1,296 pphpd seated comfortably
  • 2,592 pphpd mixed seated and standing
  • 4,032 pphpd official capacity (crush load/legal limit)
  • Cable speed: 6 m/s (or 13.4 mph)
  • Headway: 25 seconds / 150 meters (in practice they space the cabs out a little more than this.)

I did this because I wanted to compare Seattle’s new light rail to Squaw’s funitel. As it’s configured now, this is how are our light rail compares:

Seattle LRT Stats

  • 1,184 pphpd seated
  • 3,200 pphpd crush load
  • Headway: 7.5 min
  • Cost per mile: $179 million

Wish we would have built a CPT system!

Now, unfortunately Kelly didn’t provide us with how much the Squaw Valley system cost to build, without which makes comparison difficult (if anyone out there has that number, please post it in the comments below). But at 1.67 miles in length, I can assure everyone that the Funitel didn’t come anywhere near the cost of the Seattle LRT. The Squaw Valley system, likely, was built for somewhere around $25 million per mile, not much more (again, if anyone out there has the actual number, please post it with link in the comments below).

Furthermore, it’s not an entirely fair comparison. Seattle’s LRT has significant portions of the line underground and the line is far longer (17.3 miles) than what a CPT system typically sees. Additionally, Seattle’s prone to earthquakes and seismic activity. Any cable system built in Seattle would face increased costs in order to earthquake-proof the system. At the same time, some of those costs would be defrayed by cable’s ability to deal with Seattle’s topographical challenges in ways that LRT never could.

With those caveats aside, however, two things jump out: The dramatic difference in headway and the capacity premium of the Funitel. The LRT system has wait times 15 times longer and a (current) maximum capacity that is 20% lower than the Squaw Valley Funitel.

One would expect that if Seattle were to pay such a high cost for their LRT (as per my knowledge, it’s the most expensive LRT ever built), headways should be far shorter and capacity far higher. Especially when compared to a ski lift.

Comparisons such as Kelly’s are useful for de-bugging. It’s the kind of comparison that jolts you into questioning what you think you already know. As more and more research is gathered on the Squaw Valley, such comparisons could also be useful in more rigorous ways.

So here’s a question: What if The Gondola Project set up a central database of interesting, appropriate systems for people to use as comparisons? As systems are identified, they could be “put out there” and readers could contribute research and statistics as they find them. Would that be useful to TGP readers? Would TGP readers be willing to help build that database? How would it work?

Think about it and send us your comments.

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The Cost of Light Rail

I tend to pick on Light Rail for a reason. It’s a technology akin to the average beauty contestant. It looks good on the outside, but is kind of useless on the inside.

Subways (HRT) can move hordes of people quickly and buses can move a moderate number of people cheaply, but Light Rail seems incapable of either. LRT is not quick, it doesn’t move a tonne of people, and it’s certainly not cheap. But as I’ve said before, Light Rail managed to come up the middle between a technology we cannot afford and a technology we do not like.

I’ve talked in the past about the speed of Light Rail, but let’s now talk specifically about that cost matter.

According to several recent studies by Bent Flyvberg, a respected scholar from Denmark, urban rail systems cost on average, US$50-150 million per route-kilometre. Granted, this range includes both light rail and heavy rail, but the point is this: At the low end of analysis, an urban rail system will cost a minimum of US$50 million per route kilometre to construct. It’s reasonable to assume that systems in that range will be of the light rather than heavy variety.

Cable systems rarely reach such costs. The Portland Aerial Tram, yes, reached the US$50 million per kilometre threshold, but that system is the exception rather than the rule. When looking at systems build worldwide, cable rarely eclipses the US$30 million per kilometre mark.

Given that cable is cleaner, quieter, more reliable and safer than light rail, the cost factor more than justifies cable’s place in the minds of transit planners everywhere.

I’m not saying forget about Light Rail entirely. I’m just saying that there are several instances where cable could do the job and is worthy of consideration.

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Up To 16 Extra Minutes Each Day

Extra 16 Minutes

And That's When The Streetcars Run On Time.

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