Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Protected Bike Lanes ... Everywhere!

Kinzie St protected bike lane, Chicago
Protected bike lanes are a long time coming in Philadelphia. Five years ago, we were among the country's leaders in bike infrastructure -- back when buffered bike lanes were the big new thing -- but while other cities, such as New York, D.C., and Chicago, rolled out ever-more-extensive bike infrastructure, we ... regressed. Pointless "super-sharrows", an infrastructural solution now a decade out of date, were installed instead on Samson Street.

Even so, a cadre of geeks have been beating the drum to improve the buffered bike lanes we already have and install new protected cycle lanes. And it looks like we have some headway: Ryan Avenue linking Mayfair to the Boulevard in the Northeast is due to receive the city's first protected bike lane, and the Bike Coalition's now beating a drum for the installation of one on Chestnut Street in West Philly -- which yours truly first conceived of some three years ago now, back when the buffered bike lane on Walnut was installed.

This, as Tom Beck reports for Citified.

Part of the issue is spatial. Philadelphia's major core streets just don't have a lot of space, and in fact a lot of our bike-friendliness is because of that. It's not particularly suicidal to ride down, say, 6th Street in South Philly, where you have to be a douchy driver indeed to exceed bike speed. (Though we do have more than our fair share of douchy drivers.) It's much more difficult to ride along wider, overstriped streets with more traffic lanes than they really need. Sometimes, as is the case with 22nd Street in Fairmount, the extra space exists without the taking of a traffic lane -- but the political will does not. And Center City's principal buffered lanes, the ones put in before Ariel Ben-Amos moved over to the Water Department, all involved the taking of a parking lane to be put in, in the first place.

That said, there are definitely avenues in the city fit for protected bike lanes. Lots of them. In general, if there's a flush median a.k.a. a center turning lane a.k.a. a suicide lane, there's space for bike lanes on either side. And if both bike lanes and a center turning lane exist, there's space to make them protected. Here are more than a few examples.* And, though the old core might be largely bereft of places to put protected bike lanes, as you head out into the Northeast, there is plenty of underutilized space on streets such as Frankford, Castor, or Tyson avenues, space currently given over to passing lanes that makes crossing streets harder than it need be.

It might be all politics in the end, though. Bike commuting is concentrated around Center City, and most of the Bike Coalition's protected cycle tracks abet that. Despite the prevalence of striped lanes in the Northeast, it's still perceived as a place where one drives. And our 2.4% commute mode share is, in absolute terms ... not a lot. It'll take a commute mode share closer to 20% before bike commuting is thought of as something other than a "hipster thing" short of massive Millennial political coalition-building.
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* The one caveat we must observe is that major mass transit infrastructure, such as a busway or light rail line, has a natural priority over bike infrastructure. Indeed, this is the main difficulty with installing bike infrastructure on Girard Avenue. This is also what makes Erie the most difficult of the Bike Coalition's recommendations: the 56 uses the old trolley median (closed to traffic) as an impromptu busway. And, seeing as the route is one of the city's busiest, improving mass transit capacity along Erie takes precedence over improving bike infrastructure.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Good Problem for the El

The Market-Frankford Line has a capacity issue. It's crowded during rush hour. And its crowding isn't just in Center City, it's end-to-end. Many people use the el to connect to the NHSL, 101 and 102 trolleys, and buses points west at 69th St., and buses points northeast at Frankford and Arrot terminals transportation centers. And with a ridership of just over 190,000 ppd, it is by far SEPTA's single busiest route, one that sees a surprising 60% more riders than the Broad Street Line.

Crowding indicates the el needs more space. As heavy rail -- infrastructurally, by far the highest-capacity of all modes -- any further capacity increases must come with relatively incremental improvements to the current physical plant. Some improvements are cheaper than others. A couple can be implemented immediately; others may take a little while longer. From cheapest to most expensive, we can:

- Use longitudinal seating. This one is by far the cheapest way to increase capacity, requiring nothing more than a refurbishment of the el cars' interiors, one which (they are halfway through their design lives) they are due for soon. It's also used in several other American subways -- notably, Boston and New York. Longitudinal seating decreases seating capacity, but it makes up for it by increasing standing capacity; it's also important to notice that in the current setup, the worst crowding occurs around the doors; longitudinal seating can help alleviate that.

- Convert to automatic train control (ATC). The el, like New York's 7 and L trains, is a single line with no branching. While no US transit agency has demonstrated the expertise to more than ~25 tph with human-driven subways (the MTA tried once and it failed miserably), ATC allows trains to be programmed to run at any frequency so desired. Increasing the frequency increases the runs a given trainset can make, which in turn increases overall line capacity. Indeed, when the 7's ATC installation is finished later this year, the line's peak frequency will be 28 or 29 tph -- just shy of one every other minute.

- Use full vestibules. There's a lot of unused space between the el's train cars. Use of full vestibules -- essentially, an articulating chamber between the cars (much like the one on articulated buses) -- would add a lot of usable space within the boundaries of the train. 10% more, in fact. Fun fact: full vestibules are now found on metros in every single country that uses them ... except the US.

The problem with this is that the current equipment is halfway through its life cycle and full vestibules would have to be a design requirement for their replacements. It would also require a rethink of el trains from a triplet of married pairs back-to-back-to-back to a single six-car unit. Indeed, thinking of trains as assemblages of cars rather than unitary bodies in their own right is often cited as the main reason why the US (whose railroad engineering expertise stalled in the 1950s) doesn't use full vestibules.

One can also argue that a full-vestibuled trainset naturally locks train length in for the duration of its life cycle. But that is only an issue if we are actively pursuing infrastructure for longer trains.

- Lengthen the platforms. Another way to increase the el's train capacity is, naturally, to use longer trains! But train length is currently proscribed by the length of the system's shortest platforms: therefore, it makes sense to increase platform lengths if we want to, well, platform longer trains. This is particularly problematic on the West Philadelphia elevated, whose platforms should have been extended to handle seven- or possibly eight-car trains in the recent rebuilding; the 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 11th St el stops, which can can only platform six cars and require tunneling to increase platform lengths; and the 69th St Terminal Transportation Center, where the track design of both platform approaches may well actually preclude any lengthening. Easier are the Frankford el's shorter platforms, which are now more than 20 years old and can conceivably be rebuilt to handle longer trains during a modernization program in the not-too-distant future.

The downside of this is that, if you're already using full vestibules, the benefits of lengthening the platforms comes not when you've lengthened the shortest platform, but rather once you've replaced the trainsets with ones that take full advantage of the longer platforms. Of course, this can be spun: Great! Our new self-driving, longitudinal-seating full-vestibuled trains increase capacity by some 25%! Now we have some thirty-forty years to lengthen all the platforms so that we can run longer trains and further alleviate crowding now that the easy stuff's done!

- Build an express track. This is perhaps the most difficult of the incremental investments. While the original plan for the el was for it to run express through Center City, and the trolleys local -- the trolley tunnel from 15th to 32nd being therefore incorporatable into an express line -- PRT, the el's original builder, was never able to finish the scheme, having run out of money by the time the line reached City Hall and only able to raise enough to build half of the system for the last (and most expensive) mile. As a result, the West Philadelphia and Frankford els were never designed to incorporate an express track, and there's a fair possibility the latter may not be able to, either. (Market Street is much wider, so you've got more room to work with.)

All that said, the fact that el crowding doesn't drop off as you head further out, but is rather end-to-end, makes it useful to look at an express track (perhaps as a couple of short segments of timed overtakes?) Such a track would offer a useful second service for passengers heading to 69th St or Frankford and thereby free up local capacity for interstitial stations.

- Build an interceptor line. Not remotely incremental, this -- by far the most expensive solution of all -- builds a new line that siphons off some of the el's traffic at its source. Built as planned, a Boulevard subway would function as this: it would intercept most of the traffic on the 14 bus and near the Boulevard, as well as (assuming a convenient transfer) buses on Bustleton, Oxford, and Castor avenues, leaving primarily the 66 feeding into the el.

Interceptors would also have to function as lines in their own right. This is either a feature or a bug: by intercepting most passengers taking the train to Frankford, you've opened up a lot of capacity. Capacity that can get filled up. In fact, the Media/Elwyn and Paoli/Thorndale Lines are both arguably interceptors for the el (via the 101 and 102 for the former, and the NHSL and 105 for the latter) ... and are themselves heavily used. Essentially, patronage has expanded not just to fill the core line but the lines built to alleviate capacity by intercepting it.

The Boulevard subway was last projected to have the same passenger counts the el today "enjoys", a fair percentage being intercepted el passengers. But it's more than likely that that capacity would quickly get filled up, and the el run at capacity again.

So it's good to think of new lines, and think of new lines not just in their own right, but how they would fit into the network; but to propose a new line solely to alleviate the capacity problems of another is not so good an idea. Induced demand is just as true for mass transit as it is for cars and bikes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Minneapolis Councilwoman's Land-Use Masterstroke

Saw this quote in this article:
The Minneapolis policy, proposed by Council Member Lisa Bender, would eliminate all parking requirements for new residential units built within 350 feet, or about a block, of bus or rail service offering frequent, all-day service (every 15 minutes at midday). Within a quarter-mile of frequent bus service and a half-mile of frequent rail service, the policy change would eliminate all requirements for buildings with 50 or fewer housing units, and reduce them to one space per two units for projects larger than that. For developments within 350 feet of infrequent bus service—coming only 30 minutes at midday—the policy would reduce current parking requirements by 10 percent.
Mrs. Bender is truly brilliant. Not only is she proposing what is perhaps the most progressive parking reform in the country, she is doing so in such a way that ties parking to mass transit accessibility. IOW, the closer you are to mass transit, the less parking you need.

She isn't just proposing a law, she's proposing a template of a law. One that can easily be replicated anywhere with a good mass transit core.

For instance, if you applied a similar requirement here in Philadelphia, the scale of our core network is such that parking requirements would be waived entirely for the overwhelming majority of the inner city. It would look not dissimilar to Yonah Freemark's map of Chicago parking requirements.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Success ... by a hair's breadth?

As if in a coda to my post the other day, Plan Philly brings news of the apartment project at 43rd and Baltimore -- across the street from Clark Park. It went before the Zoning Board seeking variances, doing so after:

  • Extensive community input shaping the development vision
  • Jannie Blackwell rejecting spot-zoning proposal
By the time it got to the ZBA, the project had racked up letters of support or nonopposition from every single involved party. Yet there were, in the meeting, two dissenters:
At a hearing in April, the developers sought variances for height, 35 feet more than the underlying zoning allows, and commercial space. It was supported by local civic groups and Councilwoman Blackwell’s office, but opposed vociferously by two neighborhood residents who live a few blocks from the property. 
Mary McGettigan and Larry Caputo, the opponents of the project, noted that the project didn’t conform to either the existing or proposed zoning of the property. They argued that the developers hadn’t made their case that the zoning designation represented a hardship on the property.
The ZBA voted to support this project. But it only did so by a 3-2 margin. This, despite the fact that the developers had gone above and beyond in incorporating the community voice in their design. It's fairly clear that -- had there been no dissenters who showed up at the meeting -- the project would have sailed through the ZBA.

Two dissenters.

That's all it took to nearly derail a small apartment building that is in scale with a number of similar buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood.

As if you needed any more evidence modern zoning is excessively restrictive!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What works

These concrete tree thingies that seem to be generally Brutalist have proven to be aesthetically successful over time. A combination of simple geometric features emphasizing the use of (reinforced) concrete and glass, a simple cantilevering, and a layout that manages to evoke traditional columnular layouts while at the same time offering characteristically Modernist light airy spareness.

The example shown above is the Katowice train station, demonstrating how this style is particularly effective for structures whose principal organizing element is a large, open main hall.