Portland is a PR machine for light rail & streetcar

Here are Some Facts About Portland Oregon          

A typical “smart” transportation policy, from: http://rmc.sierraclub.org/transportation/transportationcompolicy.shtml:


The Sierra Club supports transportation policy and systems that:

Adopted by the Board of Directors, February 19-20, 1994; amended May 7-8, 1994


The rest of this document presents TAR’s comments (TAR: & END TAR) about each element (bold), of “Guidelines

Adopted by the Transportation Committee Mode: The Sierra Club favors the most energy and land

conserving, and least polluting systems and vehicles.” (Ibid)


Walking and bicycling are best, along with  electronic communications to reduce trips. Next are buses, minibuses, light rail and heavy rail (as corridor trips increase); electrified wherever feasible. Rail systems are most effective in stimulating compact development patterns, increasing public transit patronage and reducing motor vehicle use.


TAR:  I know of no reason why rail systems would be most effective in stimulating compact development -- assuming, of course, that this is something that should be stimulated.


With few exceptions, bus has equal capacity for passenger throughput and, in certain particulars, can offer superior attributes. It is a VERY bad mistake to automatically assume that certain transportation modes are better than others; in my long professional experience, this has been one of the single greatest causes of major errors in important decisions.  It would be far superior to have performance-based criteria for such decisions.  In a policy statement, it would be proper to state the types of criteria that should be reviewed and, if desired, to rank their importance.


Given the history and mission of the Club, I think it is rather obvious that environmental concerns, and decision criteria that reflect such concerns, will have a prominent role.  However, criteria measuring productivity, cost-effectiveness, and safety are also extremely important and, in many cases, the performance of various transportation system options on these latter criteria will be far more important.


Land use and related concepts is highly interactive with transportation decisions, but the actual productivity of land use concepts in achievement of specified objectives – including change in transportation-related objectives – is what is key.


To put it bluntly, many passenger rail projects perform very poorly compared to other alternatives, many of which were either not considered or were unfairly and improperly evaluated or ranked -- which leads to what is perhaps my most important comment, that competence, fairness, and lack of bias in the analysis and decision-making process must be the foundation for all such work.




Station access should be provided by foot, bicycle and public transit, with minimal, but full-priced, public parking.


TAR:  I would like to agree with full-priced parking at transit stations, but the problem here is that, in many cases, free parking is important in stimulating ridership.  To put it bluntly, I have very often had to inform clients – and other agencies – that their guideway transit plans were deficient because the proposed levels of parking, and customer charges therefore, would significant limit ridership.


In order to create transit ridership, at least from "choice" riders, it is important to at least meet minimum customer expectations in several attributes important to riders, and be superior in at least one.  If you add too much to the passenger cost (which is measured in terms of time and convenience, as well as in dollars and cents) for using transit, you wind up losing ridership.  One very common reason for using transit is that is an escape from paying for parking at the destination and searching for a place to park.


Without the particulars of specific projects, we can only offer generalized comments.  The importance of free parking will vary significantly from case to case – BUT, let me talk about the Los Angeles Red Line (subway from Union Station near downtown LA to North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley).


Overall, the line didn't reach half of the ridership projections for the year 2000 until very recently, with the high fuel prices driving ridership just over that mark.  The only stations that have actually hit the original ridership projections are the two in the San Fernando Valley, which, interestingly enough, are the only two with free parking.  Of course, it is also true that the original fare assumption was a distance-based fare, which would have meant that travel from the Valley to downtown would have been far more expensive than shorter fares (same fare structure as BART).  What actually went in was a "flat" fare – it costs the same to ride, no matter how far – which, of course, made long trips, such as Valley to downtown, very cheap (which, by the way, was my doing).  From analysis of the impacts on other LA rail lines, there is reason to believe that the change to "flat" fares may be responsible for as much as half of the ridership.


I hate to think how low ridership would be if we had both distance-based fares AND paid parking.




(Parking) (a)ccommodation of pedestrians, bicycles and public transit should be given priority over private automobiles.


TAR:  Ahhh, you carry this too far and it is a great way to reduce ridership.


I certainly agree that there needs to be a lot of attention paid to being fair to all who want to access the station.  For example, I find it extremely irritating to find transit systems where you can park a car for free, but have to pay for a place to safely park your bike, particularly when you can generally get at least six lockable bike storage "boxes" in the space taken by one auto parking stall – and the capital cost of setting up for six bikes is a fraction of the cost for one auto.  I also like a policy of putting the bike lockers as close to the station platform as possible, generally with only the ADA parking slots closer, and expanding bike parking whenever there is a demand, again starting as close as possible to the station platform.


I see no discussion of carrying bikes on board transit vehicles.  This has become less of a problem with buses, because the usual two-bike racks on the front are becoming more and more common, but, on some lines with a lot of cyclists, these are getting insufficient, so it may be wise to have a policy statement for maximum bikes on board.  There are higher capacity bus external bike storage devices out there, but these tend to be more expensive and the transit agencies have enough financial issues without having to replace two-bike racks that are only a few years old and still working well with brand new three-bike racks.


This is, currently, more of a problem on rail, although some progress is being made.  Generally, most urban heavy rail systems will not allow bikes on board during rush hour because the space for a bike can be as much as that for a human, or even more, and bikes not carefully handled can make for a lot of other problems.


Fortunately, the Bay Area commuter rail operators have been among the world leaders on bikes on trains.


(A big part of these differences is due to different passenger load characteristics for different transit modes.  As a general rule, the longer the trip, the lower the load factor, and urban rail generally has far more standees than bus.  Commuter rail, long-haul freeway express bus service, and most longer-trip ferries have the lowest load factors, generally 100% of seated load for peak hour trips.  Heavy rail generally has the highest, generally over 200% of seated load, with light rail generally about 175-190%.  Local bus service is rarely over 150% of seated load.  [All of these factors refer to the ratio of total passengers on board to the number of seats at the peak load point during peak hear hour, applied to all trips in the peak direction during that period.])


Until it is practical to have bike storage on light rail and heavy rail – which is something I do not know how to do, as there are many such systems with significant lack of capacity for standing passengers [VTA could implement unlimited bikes on board light rail immediately with no problems, Muni could not possibly even begin to think of doing that] – other methodologies should be encouraged.  One is folding bikes; there are some pretty good models now and, almost every year or two, some bright person comes up with a way to reduce the footprint even more in a bike that is usable for reasonable length trips in the urban environment.


Another is allowing cyclists to have two bike lockers, or provide other dual cyclist storage, such as attended "valet bike parking/storage."  This allows someone who uses his/her "good" bike to ride, say, six miles to the station near where they live to store an old "junker" at the station near their job for the last mile-and-a-half.


"Community" bikes is another option, but there have always been questions how long the supply will last in the U.S.


At a minimum, the transit system at the job destination end should do what it can to provide for bikes, such as making sure all buses picking up passengers for distribution rides at the end of the morning in-bound trip have usable bike racks.




Public transit service should be coordinated, and transit facilities should facilitate intermodal transfers, including convenient and safe bicycle access to public transit vehicles, and secure bicycle storage in public places and stations. Multiple occupancy vehicles should be favored over single occupancy vehicles. Roads and traffic laws should be designed and enforced to enhance safety. All parking costs should be fully and directly charged.


TAR:  Should specify: to who.




Freight railroads, especially electrified, are preferred over highway or air freight to save energy and land, and cut noise and pollutant emissions.


TAR:  Not always, depends on a number of factors, starting with the load. Rail is frequently not at all competitive on low-volume freight corridors – which is, of course, the main reason why there is a whole lot less rail trackage in the U.S. now than there was several decades ago.


Water transportation of freight can be very competitive in certain corridors.  It would also be good to say some nice things about pipelines (but not of the coal slurry variety).


When you consider the REQUIRED audio warning at higher speed at grade crossings – generally, 85 dBA for light rail and 96 dBA for freight/commuter rail for “high speed” crossings other than “quiet zones” – I can think of a lot of people who will not characterize rail as "cutting noise."  I can hear freights in Oakland miles from my home blowing their horns after midnight.


Before anyone starts looking at electric rail as being nice and green, take a look how the electricity is generated.  The further East you go, as a general rule, the more fossil fuel electricity your get, with coal becoming more and more dominant.  Of course, even the West, where there is a whole lot of hydro power, where there is a new electric rail system, there will be an increase in electric demand, with much of the increase occurring in the afternoon peak period, where the dominant method of providing the requirement is fossil-fueled generation – a situation that is unlikely to change for many years, with no guarantees at this point that the condition will significantly change even after a decade or two.  (Does the Sierra Club have a position on expansion of atomic power, which, at the present time, is the only practical means for significant expansion of the power generation capacity of the U.S.?)


Evidently, however this was prepared, there was no recognition of the time value of materials movement, one element of which is sometimes called, "just-in-time" logistics.  Trucks are VERY good at this; rail freight is, generally, not very good at all (with the exception of deliveries of coal). I don't care how you arrange it, it just takes a whole lot longer to move goods via rail than via truck for almost all needs.


Rail is often excellent for moving high-weight, high-bulk, low-value, non-time-critical freight (coal and grains are classic – as is steel rail) along long-established corridors between fixed points.  For goods movement that does not meet one or more of these characteristics, rail becomes less and less competitive – often VERY quickly.




Amtrak and high speed intercity rail which afford comparable city center to city center access times, or which offer comparable overnight convenience, are preferred to air travel because they save energy, use less land, cut noise and pollutant emissions, and allow some airports to be closed.


TAR:  Rail passenger transportation in the U.S., particularly of the very long-trip variety, is simply not very viable for very many people.  Outside of New York City, it is has a minor mode split even for urban trips; for intercity travel, it gets lost in the rounding – AND THIS IS A SITUATION THAT WILL NOT CHANGE; rail passenger transit is simply unable to ever be a major factor in moving people in the U.S. because the costs, and other impacts, of adding rail trips is far too large.  Indeed, over-expenditure on rail has a major negative impact on transit as a whole because it frequently takes away from the types of public transit that the transit-dependent and others want and will use.


For most of the U.S. West of the Mississippi, Amtrac service – to the very small number of places that have any – is one train a day going generally East and one going generally West, at least one of which is at a non-optimal hour, such as the middle of the night.  Bus service, in many cases, could carry a lot more people to a lot more places at a lot less cost to the public, to the advantage of users, taxpayers, and all others.  In certain states, the best move could be to halt all Amtrac subsidies and encourage intercity bus expansion.


By the way, increased passenger rail usage can really get in the way of rail freight movements.  Sometimes, it just takes more attention to scheduling and dispatching (for example, in greater Chicago, Metra, the commuter rail operator, has become a very peak-oriented service, even by commuter rail standards, which means that the freights have become very good at leaving  the rails to Metra during the peaks in return for getting them pretty much the rest of the time), but it is not at all uncommon that significant track upgrades, sometimes including double-tracking, are necessary (or, at least, the freight RR will say it is, in order to get some public sector sucker to pay for the cost of the upgrade; trust me, freight railroads are FAR better at negotiating such arrangements than those on the public sector side, particularly politico's in a hurry to get things done).


If you check out the intercity passenger and freight movement mode splits in the EU, the passenger mode split in Europe is far higher, but the goods movement split is far lower, than in the U.S. -- and there is actually a direct connection for these.


Just out of curiosity, which airports have been closed recently?


And which could be if passenger rail was expanded?



Therefore, new or improved rail facilities, and electronic communications, are preferred to new or expanded airports.


TAR:  Making such a statement without detailed analysis of the specific corridor is simply not a wise thing to do.




Discourage private aviation to reduce noise impacts on urban and natural areas. Highway Expansion No limited access highways ("freeways") should be built or widened, especially in urban-suburban areas or near threatened natural areas.


TAR:  While I have a great deal of respect for both the natural and the built environments, I take extreme exception to this statement.  Recognizing that many early freeway projects, particularly urban ones, were badly flawed in a number of ways, failure to expand the road system to meet demand has been the single most significant transportation issue, both passenger and freight, of the past several decades.


I also believe that, in most cases, it is possible to reach compromises that serves all interests reasonable well, if the parties are prepared to be reasonable.


While my aviation expertise is limited, I find statements such as, “Discourage private aviation to reduce noise impacts on urban and natural areas,” to be overly broad.  As written, it applies to all general aviation, everywhere.  If there are specific problems, identify then, and suggest specific actions in response.




High occupancy vehicle (HOV) and high occupancy vehicle/toll (HOT) lanes should come from converting existing highway lanes rather than constructing new lanes.


TAR:  Again, I take great exception to this.  We have a highway capacity crisis now, its has been getting worse for decades, and failure to construct added capacity is continuing to restrain our nation in many ways.


HOV lanes have their uses, but keep in mind that "your grandfather's carpool" – the one he took to and from the defense plant in WWII – has long since all but disappeared from the U.S.  The last statistic I saw was that about 91% of carpools were what is commonly referred to as "fampools" – people sharing a household commuting together.  (One of my favorites was a couple who lived near me and who worked in the City of San Francisco who very carefully found a daycare center in the City so they could drive across the bridge – with no toll – as a HOV-3 vehicle with their infant in a child seat.) Interestingly, to the extent that there has been growth in transit over the past several decades (which has not been huge, of course; nationally, currently about 2% of trips and under 1% of passenger miles in total for urban trips), carpool mode split has been going down more – and the only modal "winners" are single-occupant vehicle, a very little for walk and bike – and work-at-home, which has been growing very rapidly from nothing, and which is where I think the big action is going to be for many years – work-at-home already far exceeds transit in many urbanized areas and is gaining ground in almost all the rest.


Keep in mind that the highway and surface road system carries the overwhelming majority of local freight movements in the U.S.  The growing inability of trucks to move around our cities quickly and predictably is a major crisis – and there is no conceivable resolution of this other than expansion of road capacity.




This avoids constructing new lanes which are mixed-flow much of the day, or are converted to full-time mixed-flow after construction.


TAR:  I support construction of mixed-flow lanes where justified – which is most places by now, given the decades of neglect – and where possible and practical without have excessive negative impacts, and I generally oppose conversion of HOV lanes to mixed-flow.


However, it is necessary to understand how such HOV to mixed-use conversions – particularly the "unofficial" or "everybody knows" type – come into existence.


We have various national policies and practices that, to a great extent, prohibit the construction of new mixed flow limit access capacity if air quality standards are not met (I'm greatly simplifying).  Since there are many urban areas that violate such standards, at least in some way, even though compliance was greatly improved even as the standards have gotten tougher, and since one of the main causes of such emissions is congestion, this has some elements of a doctor treating a patient for blood loss by bleeding him.


Soooo, some areas took to HOV construction because it was, in effect, the only type of highway expansion that they were likely to get approved.


It often didn't take long for people to notice that the mixed flow lanes weren't moving real well, but the HOV lanes were sorta empty – and some people started reacting according to their desires instead of the law.  (I have personally observed violation rates as high as 40% on a WELL-UTILIZED HOV-2 HOV lane.)


Now, there are performance requirements laid down by the Feds for HOV lanes that they fund.  One is that they must maintain a speed of 45 mph during peak hours, which is causing a lot of problems for a lot of places in California (or, at least, it was until traffic began to be reduced by one of the very few things that will actually positively impact congestion, a good [by which I mean bad] recession).  This overuse is caused by a number of factors, the dumbest being allowing approved SOV hybrids to use HOV lanes. (This makes no sense from an environmental point of view because this is generally where hybrids have the least fuel mileage advantage over non-hybrids, as the lack of start-and-stop makes regenerative breaking a non-factor; any mileage advantage that remains is a combination of smaller engines, low weight, and mileage-devoted drivers – none of which requires a hybrid vehicle.)


The other main requirement is that there be enforcement of the HOV requirement – at least twice a year.  Now, keep in mind that this is a HUGE problem for a variety of reasons.  First, you have to figure you want to challenge a particular vehicle – how do you single them out on the usual type of HOV setup with one lane in each direction, and how do you signal them to get off the road for inspection – and then, exactly where do you pull them over without causing a major traffic interruption on an already congested roadway?  There is no automated technology currently available that can test for occupancy to the required level of accuracy for automated ticketing; the best ones currently available approach about 97% accuracy.  So, trying to enforce HOV requirements is very difficult and often not real rewarding.


Which is why some highway law enforcement officials do things like do their two days of enforcement on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.


Some of them will tell you – off the record – that they do very little to enforce HOV because the lanes are there, the capacity is needed, and if they did somehow manage to effectively enforce HOV requirements, they would be little used.  In essence, they built sorta general-purpose lanes under another name because they needed the capacity and couldn't get permission to build more any other way.


(If it makes anyone feel any better, the worst-case examples I mentioned were NOT from California, where most HOV lanes are rather well used, many to over capacity.)


I do object strongly to using public funds to build something for one purpose and then using it for another – UNLESS there was a good faith effort to make it work as originally intended and it is just not fulfilling a useful purpose.  An example of the latter was the I-15 HOV lane in San Diego, which was performing very poorly, which was transformed into a well-utilized HOT lane.




Toll rates on HOT lanes should vary by time of day, and revenues above operating expenses should be used to improve travel opportunities for low income travelers and to operate public transit.


TAR:  HOT lane revenues, to the extent that they exceed the costs of construction of HOV lanes (including debt service interest) and operations should be utilized to expand the HOT lane network by building more HOT lanes.  (Obviously, this is my opinion, not anything that I represent as a legal, regulatory, or moral requirement.)


The construction of HOT lanes, in and of itself, can be used for very significant transit improvements.  Long-haul commuter express bus service on freeways is often very competitive with commuter rail travel times, particularly when the travel time is properly measured as origin-to-destination.  When such service is operated on limited access lanes, such as HOV or HOT lanes, such bus service often has a very significant time advantage.  One of the great strengths of such service is that the same buses can operate both on the guideway at high speed and in local service on surface streets, allowing such buses to serve as their own feeder and collector service.  Another is that such types of long-haul commuter express bus service can sometimes be effectively used for spread-out suburban employment centers, where commuter rail generally is not usable.


Generally, commuter rail service is doing very well if 50% of the operating costs are covered out of the farebox (and, be aware that, in California, the law defining operating costs to be utilized in this calculation was very deliberately changed to allow the required 50% ratio to be "met" by what we CPA's sometimes refer to as, "creative accounting"); there are several comparable bus systems near or over the 90% farebox recovery mark – and we haven't even gotten into the far lower capital cost requirements of the bus service.


So why not use some of the HOT lane monies for transit?  Because, before you can operate such good service to its optimum, first you have to have a guideway to operate it on – and, besides, having the HOT lane can "pay" for the majority of the operating subsidy by significantly reducing the operating costs of the transit system.  So, the best use of HOV "excess" revenues for transit use is generally to expand the HOT lane network so more bus transit service can be operated in an urban area.




Implement Transport Control Measures rather than increasing road capacity for vehicles. Intelligent Vehicle/Highway Systems (IVHS) should not be designed to increase highway capacity and stimulate additional traffic, off-highway congestion, sprawl, energy consumption and pollution.


TAR:  I don't know how to characterize this as other than just plain mean, as well as extremely poor public policy.  Why would the Sierra Club want to OPPOSE actions that, at relatively low cost, would relieve congestion by adding more effective capacity without needed to expand physical capacity?  Why would any entity want to oppose actions that would provide for more effective utilization of public sector resources?


By the way, the "added capacity stimulates additional trips" hypothesis has now passed from the common body of transportation knowledge (except for those who are not interested in updated research findings if they destroy the basis for a justification they have been offering).  It originated from a single study that focused only on freeway usage at specific times. Further, more detailed studies have shown that the usage of the added freeway lanes arrived quickly by what is generally known as "triple convergence" (after Anthony Downs), where former users of surface streets, former drivers at off-peak, and former transit users shifted back to driving on the freeway during peak periods because it now worked better for them – and shouldn't this be counted as a SUCCESS?  In summary, the addition of new capacity to a road network does little to cause trips to be made that would not have been made before, but it can have a significant impact in change the route, the time the trip is made, and the transportation mode.  By the way, to the extent that adding highway capacity causes trips to be shifted from transit to autos, this tends to free up scarce transit resources that can be used elsewhere, such as where there is demand from those that do not have the option to drive.


Let me put it this way – if having the capacity of a public-funded infrastructure improvement being fully utilized in a short time period because people are "voting with their actions to use it is something that should be frowned upon, than I know a whole lot of transit agencies that build expensive rail lines that have little to worry about.



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Some Observations on Transportation Policy (part 1)

by Thomas A. Rubin BSBA , MBA, CPA, CMA, CMC, CIA, CGFM, CFM

(Tom Rubin’s comments are identified by TAR: & END TAR)

Pdf of this document

part 2  part 3  part 4