Posts Tagged: Transit



How Is This Even Possible?

A couple of days ago, Yonah Freemark published some statistics that should trouble anyone in the North American transit world:

Los Angeles plans a 13.8 km long subway line at a total cost of $6 billion. That works out to $435 million per kilometer.

Not to be outdone, New York is planning a 2.7 km long subway line at a cost of $4.5 billion. That works out to $1.6 billion per kilometer.

These are comically large numbers, especially in the case of New York. How are they even possible? And more importantly, how are those cities’ governments and citizens expected to pay for those systems?

Does a cost-benefit analysis really justify such huge expenditure for such a limited increase in coverage? And if so . . . who wrote the cost-benefit analysis?

More disturbing is to think about what the actual cost of these systems will be. Typically, capital cost forecasts for projects like these are severely underestimated. How the above numbers could be underestimated is beyond me, but history suggests that will be the case.

Inflate those numbers by 20-50% and you’re looking at something that’s no longer comical and is instead tragic.

Pro-transit or not, those are hard numbers to justify.

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Never Mind The Real World

If I gave you the choice between a transit technology that could carry 20,000 people and a technology that could carry 6,000 which would you choose? Clearly, youd choose 20,000.

Or what if I gave you the choice between a transit technology that operated at 100 km/hr or one that operated at 35 km/hr? Obviously youd opt for the faster one. Faster is better because faster means you get where youre going sooner.

And thats the problem.

Humans are irrational – no secret there – and were so hard-wired to grab the most of anything, well almost always opt for that which gives us the most. It doesnt matter that we dont even like three-quarters of whats on the Mandarin’s all-you-can-eat buffet, we just like to know the option is there.

So too with transit planners.

Theoretically, Light Rail carries between 6,000 – 20,000. Just ask Professor Vukan R. Vuchic, one of the only people to ever write a textbook on transit planning. His Urban Transit series of textbooks constantly state that LRT carries between 6,000 and 20,000 people. He also states that they operate at “maximum speeds (of) 70 km/hr or higher.”

Never mind that there’s no LRT system in North America that carries more than 4,000.

Never mind that there’s never been an LRT system built that carries 20,000 people.

Never mind the cost involved in staffing and purchasing vehicles that arrive every 1-3 minutes; the figure necessary to reach 20,000 people.

Never mind that the posted speed limit in most cities is 40-50 km/hr. To Vuchic, what matters is that Light Rail emcan/em go 70 km/hr or higher.

Never mind that Vuchic himself says that the average operating speed of LRT is as low as 15 km/hr.

Never mind that LRT stations are spaced 300 – 1,000 meters apart, completely preventing vehicles from reaching those top speeds.

Never mind stop signs, traffic lights, jaywalkers, slow-moving grandmothers, speeding teenagers and streetcar drivers who stop to grab a coffee while on the job.

In other words: Never mind the real world. Completely ignore what actually happens in cities and instead focus solely on what is theoretically possible. Focus on the text book and the equations in it, not the city block and the people on it.

Numbers like Vuchics are constantly used to justify technologies like LRT and we flock to them because they promise us the fastest, biggest, best technology around. It doesnt matter that the numbers prove otherwise. If you give people a narrative that appeals to them, they’ll believe it. Its cheap and easy politics and it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. Nobody ever said life was fair.

When you’re talking about billion dollar contracts and thousands of jobs, should you really expect government and industry to play fair?

Cable can carry more people than the industry publishes. It can also travel at speeds faster than what they publish. Ridiculously simple innovations like double decker vehicles would double the capacity over night. But the cable industry seems to want to play fair. They only want to talk about what they’ve done in the past, not what they’re going to do in the future.

That’s admirable, but it hurts the industry’s chances.

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8 Ways To Define An Aerial Ropeway

Cable Propelled Transit is just one segment of a technology that has dozens of names, Aerial Ropeways being the most common. But what if you broke it down a bit more? Aerial Ropeways, after all, is a pretty broad term and one that’s not really applicable to the urban area.

So how about these:

  1. Resort & Theme Park Systems – Purely for tourism and recreational purposes, most typically found at ski hills. They’re located well outside of urban areas, or if they are in urban areas, they exist in theme parks and zoos. These are by far the most common of all cable and ropeway systems. You don’t need examples, because these are the ones most everyone are familiar with.
  2. Toys For Tourists – Systems located in urban areas, but existing almost exclusively for tourists. These are rarely built and almost always die on the table, rarely getting past the proposal stage. See here.
  3. Complementary Infrastructure – Systems that exist to service another more primary business need. They may carry commuters, tourists or business people. They are usually free to ride and exist as a kind of middle child between the resort systems above and the CPT systems below. Systems such as these are becoming more-and-more common, especially in airports and master planned developments such as casinos. The Mandalay Bay Cable Car, for example.
  4. CPT with Zero Integration – Urban systems primarily targeted towards local users. These systems have no physical or fare integration with existing transit systems or technologies. The Mount Avila system in Caracas, Venezuela is an excellent example.
  5. CPT with Physical Integration – Urban systems primarily targeted towards local users. Physical design of stations and the surrounding areas allow for ease of use and transfer between other transit technologies. But the systems suffer for lack of integration within the local fare structure. The Portland Aerial Tram, or the Innsbruck Hungerburgbahn for example. Like Zero Integration systems, they are very closely related to Toys For Tourists.
  6. CPT with Fare Integration – Urban systems primarily targeted towards local users and commuters. Systems suffer from a lack of physical integration, but benefit from being ticketed under the same fare structure/system as the surrounding transit network. New York’s Roosevelt Island Tram used to have Zero Integration, but since a deal was brokered in 2004, the system should be classified as one with Fare Integration.
  7. CPT with Full Integration – The holy grail of CPT. Local users benefit from full physical and fare integration schemes. Obviously the Medellin and Caracas Metrocables fall into this category.
  8. Educational Systems – One of the problems with explaining CPT is the lack of strong examples. Instead, it’s necessary to extrapolate and translate things learned from non-urban ropeways and apply those lessons to CPT in order to improve the technology. Educational Systems are all over the place. I’d suggest that almost all Aerial Ropeways are Educational, but some of the most important are the Grindelwald-First in Switzerland, the Norsjö Aerial Ropeway in Sweden, Vancouver’s Peak 2 Peak, and the Volkswagen Funitel in Slovakia. All have important lessons for anyone interested in creatively applying Aerial Ropeways in urban environments.

Can you think of other potential categories that were missed?

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Getting Slammed

How does cable deal with high-capacity rushes? Say, after concerts and at sporting events? Or in the peak of rush hour traffic? Well that depends on a few things:

  1. What is the capacity of the system in question? If the system in question needs 4,500 pphpd at peak and you’ve built a 3,000 pphpd then lineups will be long. That applies to any and all transit. If your current needs go over 6,000 pphpd, it’s probably best to consider a different technology. Alternatively, you can build multiple lines (see point 4).
  2. In the case of concerts and sporting events; how close to the stadium/arena is the transit stop? Cities tend not to completely integrate transit stations into arenas and stadiums because no transit system in existence can handle the crush of 60,000 people filing out of a football game and descending on a subway platform. The same is true for restaurants. No 100 seat restaurant can handle 100 people walking in the door at the same time. Instead, the host waits five minutes before seating you so as to allow service to be spread throughout the evening. It’s also the reason you often can’t get a table for 7:00 pm on a Saturday, but can at 7:15. Good transit, like good restaurants, is good at managing the expectations of its riders.
  3. Where is your cable station in relation to your riders’ point of origin?  Ridership on all transit technologies needs to be spread out somewhat and this is often done by locating the transit station 5-15 minutes walking distance from stadium itself. This prevents a system from getting dangerously overwhelmed. LT1M wait times offered by cable, will however, help alleviate some platform overcrowding that naturally occurs with standard transit technologies.
  4. Are you relying upon one transit station or many? Most people arrive at an event from many different directions and depart an event in many different directions. If the location of your event is such that only one station, heading in one direction is possible, you probably need a high-capacity technology like Metros or subways. If, however, the potential exists to have many people moving in many different directions, then the needed capacity can be spread over the network, preventing choke points. Cable’s low cost makes this possible.

The last point is probably the most important, because a real world example exists to demonstrate:

Upon opening the Santo Domingo Metrocable line, Metro Medellin experienced ridership double what was anticipated. I’ve spoken with Metro Medellin and they themselves have said the 3,000 pphpd system they built was not enough and they required a 6,000 pphpd system. Rush hour line-ups to use the system are a daily occurrence.

The problem stems from the fact that the existence of the Santo Domingo line has drawn riders from other nearby parts of the network who used to use the private buses that service nearby barrios. Because the wait time to use the Metrocable plus walking from Santo Domingo is still less than the time it would take to use the privately-run bus systems, the single Metrocable line has become somewhat overwhelmed. This probably should’ve been anticipated originally, but is forgivable given the unique nature of what they were accomplishing.

Had they to do it over again, one of two solutions could’ve been implemented:

Firstly, just use a 6,000 pphpd system – which wasn’t available when the Metrocable was originally designed.

Secondly, install a second, parrallel Metrocable line with a connection 1 station over from the Santo Domingo connection. This will spread ridership over a wider area and increase total system coverage.

Metro Medellin already has plans to implement the second option. Given that the Medellin Metrocables have been installed for a price of USD$12 – 18 per kilometer (all in, including stations), the option is certainly doable. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

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Cable Misunderstandings on The Transport Politic

Yonah Freemak, the tireless creator of The Transport Politic yesterday wrote about The Gondola Project and a piece I wrote for Planetizen. Yonah takes the perspective that cable transit is an enjoyable, interesting technology and wades into the Form vs. Function debate I highlighted recently.

Yonah is an excellent writer, one whom I respect deeply. Yet while Yonah is generally positive on the concept, I have to point out one interpretive misstep and one factual misstep that he makes. First, Yonah’s interpretive misstep:

It’s true, of course, that it makes little sense to build a gondola in many cities — many places lack major elevation changes or large natural obstacles that preference an investment in a mode of transportation that simply goes over everything that’s around it.

I’ll be the first to admit that gondolas aren’t for every city, but I would never say that it makes little sense to build a gondola in “many cities.” Like so many, Freemark assumes that the technology is only appropriate for cities characterized by natural obstacles and or large elevation changes. Why? No reason is given.

I prefer to look at the technology as one that can exploit rather than just deal with natural obstacles. Rivers, valleys, parks and electricity corridors become usable space for transit that other technologies would not be able to utilize. This is a classic case of using what you have to your advantage.

Furthermore, Yonah misses the fact that traffic is an even greater obstacle in urban settings than “natural” obstacles. At least natural obstacles are static over time and space and can be planned for. No such luck with “unnatural” obstacles such as traffic, street protests, cyclists, and pedestrians. Worse still, standard transit technologies such as Buses, Streetcars and Light Rail only contribute further to traffic problems. Not so with cable systems.

Yonah’s second misstep comes when he says this:

There are of course major limitations to aerial vehicles like the gondolas Dale has highlighted; their maximum running speeds are relatively slow and they lack the ability to handle anywhere near the capacity of traditional train systems.

Two problems here:

Firstly, Yonah confuses “maximum running speed” with average speed. As I point out here and here, average running speed is all that really matters in an urban setting. Maximum speed is basically irrelevant. Just ask that guy in the Ferrari whose been stuck at 10 km/hr in dense rush hour traffic. Just because a vehicle is capable of operating at 100 km/hr doesn’t mean it will, which is why Light Rail vehicles today are built to a maximum speed specification well below what they were in the past. (Toronto Streetcars and Light Rail vehicles famously operate an average of around 13 km/hr but are built to operate at 100 km/hr).

Because cable transit systems operate outside of all other forms of traffic, vehicles are actually able to reach their maximum speeds. So while the maximum speed of a gondola may be less than the maximum speed of a streetcar or light rail vehicle or bus, it’s ability to operate outside of mixed traffic completely negates that. Yonah also completely ignores the issue of wait times, a stat with which cable has no peers (see  here and here).

Secondly, Yonah is right about one thing: Cable cannot approach the capacity of standard train systems. Here, however, I have to assume that he’s talking about commuter or heavy rail (subways). In that sense, yes, he’s right. But one of the things he misses is that few North American cities are building heavy rail systems because the capacity demands just aren’t there.

(Danish scholar Bent Flyberg, for example, has demonstrated that rail projects generally meet with ridership half of what was forecasted. This perspective is echoed by the US Department of Transportation and Harvard economist Don H. Pickrell.)

We therefore should be examining Light Rail and BRT capacities not Heavy Rail because Light Rail and BRT are currently what everyone is building. And when you look at the offered capacities of most Light Rail or Bus Rapid Transit systems in North America, rarely does one find a line that eclipses the 4,000 pphpd mark. Currently, aerial cable systems can reach up to 6,000 pphpd.

Like speed, we have a choice to build technologies that have a theoretical maximum capacity which we will never use or we can build a more modest technology that can easily provide what is required. If the two technologies were the same price, yes, go for the more robust one every time.

Problem is, LRT and BRT is anywhere from double to triple the price of cable on a per-rider-per-kilometer basis, (with far longer wait times and worse safety levels to boot.)

I duly appreciate the attention and generally favourable impression of cable Yonah’s article gives. I just think it important to recognize the deep-seated misunderstandings of the technology (in specific) and transit (in general) that exist (check out the Neumann-Bondada studies) and how those misunderstandings may preclude us from considering a truly revolutionary technology.

Remember: Cable Propelled Transit and Urban Gondolas aren’t just cool or interesting; they’re deeply simple and practical, too.

Update: Since posting this today, Yonah Freemark has posted a response of his own at the end of his original post.)

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I can’t see the difference, can you see the difference?

As some people know, there’s a huge subset of bottom-supported cable transit in the form of Cable Cars & Funiculars. Yet it’s a topic I’ve not given much attention to so far. Here’s why:

It’s hard to get people’s attention with Cable Cars. Urban Gondolas? Much simpler.

Back in March I was interviewed for an online news magazine called The Mark News. Bizarrely, as I was talking about bottom-supported systems; the following image was shown:

This picture is from The Gondola Project, but it’s not of a cable transit system. It is, in fact, a Monorail (they kindly re-edited the piece correcting for the error). Is it a big error? I’d say so. But it was also completely understandable. After all, this is what most Cable Car systems look like today:

The Pearson Airport Link in Toronto. Image by Squiggle.

I can’t see the difference, can you see the difference?

The reason gondolas grab people’s attention is because they look different immediately. You don’t need to understand the nuances between cable-propelled trains versus self-propelled trains. With a gondola, you see the cable and it’s up in the air. You don’t need an explanation. That’s both their blessing and their curse: Gondolas look so different from any other form of transit they can quickly arouse fear and suspicion in people. But they can also inspire curiosity.

One way or another, at least people pay attention.

The challenge the Cable Car industry faces is how to differentiate their technology from Automated People Movers (APM), Monorails and Light Rail. Because right now, most people don’t even know there’s a difference.

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Form vs. Function

Is transit about form or function?

For the last couple of weeks that has very much been the debate over at Human Transit (here, here and here); Form, in the guise of “fun” and “glamour” has been characterized as an unnecessary frill that caters mostly to tourists. Function (“usefulness” and “availability), meanwhile has been cast as the serious business of transit.

And while I’d never go so far as to say that Usefulness is useless, I feel Jarrett Walker (the writer behind Human Transit) overstates Function’s role in stimulating transit usage and needlessly diminishes Form’s role when he says: “the priorities of a pleasure-driven agenda will always be precisely opposite from the agenda of getting around in daily life. Pleasure-driven travellers will go where the pleasure is, but in daily life, we need to go where we’re going.”

Read more

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