Monday, April 25, 2016

Getting around the block: City vs. suburb

In my last two posts, I looked at the city block structures in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, first zooming in to the respective downtowns, then pulling out to look all the way to the cities' borders and slightly beyond. Now I'd like to turn to a few suburbs and see how they compare.

First, let's refresh our memories by taking a look at Minneapolis:


A map of city blocks in Minneapolis. Click here for full map.

In my maps, blocks that are less than 15 acres in size are colored green, yellow, or dark red (the latter two colors help indicate the presence of one-way streets). Blocks of 15 acres and larger are shown in pink. That size is roughly when I find that they become uncomfortable to walk around—these blocks have a circumference of at least 0.6 miles and take at least 12 minutes to circle on foot, and those numbers increase as blocks elongate and morph into strange shapes.

Minneapolis is a city of about 407,000 people, and has been getting built up for more than 150 years. A street grid system has been effective at filling out and giving access to most of the city's developable land. Areas shown in green on the map are generally pretty walkable and bikeable, with typical city blocks around four or five acres in size. Not all areas of the city have good access to things like restaurants, grocery stores, or other shops, but there's generally good connectivity, setting up a nice framework to be built upon.

My Minneapolis map has 4,701 small blocks compared to 225 large ones, for a ratio of about 21:1.

Now let's turn our gaze to Eden Prairie, which hangs off the southwestern edge of the I-494/I-694 beltway. It was incorporated in 1962, and has grown rapidly to become a city of about 63,000 people. An abundance of office parks and retail locations mean that close to 40,000 people work in the city, more than 85% of whom commute from other cities in the metro area. Like Minneapolis, most of the city's developable land has now been divided up into fairly small, privately-owned parcels, so it's almost fully built out:

A map of city blocks in Eden Prairie, Minnesota
A map of city blocks in Eden Prairie. Click here for full map.

Um. Yikes!

This map has 328 small blocks and 164 big ones—a ratio of just 2:1, or less than one-tenth the small:big block ratio for Minneapolis.

In a word, this is sprawl. There's a lot more stuff in Eden Prairie than what that map shows, but it's arranged in ways that waste land and make it extremely difficult to get around by any means other than driving. Let's zoom in on a section near Baker Road and Valley View Road to get a better look at what's going on:


Comparing an aerial view of Eden Prairie to a map only showing city blocks.

This comparison image shows how the suburb's dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs fill up space but don't really contribute to street connectivity. Tracing only the block edge filters out most of the streets that are mere fingers into larger areas of land. The gaps between blocks mostly show through streets, though sometimes blocks exist in small pods that are entirely encircled by a larger block except for a single road to access them.

This map highlights how suburbs' heavy reliance on cul-de-sacs, pod-style development, and hierarchical road systems is bad for walkability and bikeability, and it isn't good for car traffic either.

Do you remember how busy things were at polling places on caucus night this year? My caucus site in Saint Paul was at a nearby school less than a mile away, and I was able to walk there in 15 minutes. While a lot of other people drove, the school I went to was surrounded by a pretty good street grid to walk, bike, and drive on. I'm sure there was some frustration with parking, but there were plenty of open spaces on nearby streets as long as people were willing to walk a couple blocks.

In Eden Prairie, by contrast, a much higher proportion of people had to drive to their caucus sites, and the limited number of alternate routes created cases where the traffic stretched on for long distances—perhaps miles:



The sparse road system in suburbs like Eden Prairie funnels traffic onto the few through streets that remain. A system of small streets connected to feeder streets leading to main arterial roads can create traffic jams that could be sopped up by the grid in more traditional neighborhoods.

The limited number of through routes also creates huge problems for transit planners. Buses operate most effectively when they can run on relatively straight routes to and through mixed-use zones. They can only pick up and drop off passengers along the edges of these blocks, unless a special right-of-way or station is built. Buses that run along the freeway can't stop wherever they want—they have to exit the freeway either on a normal off-ramp or using special bus-only access.

Finding a relatively straight route that manages to hit walkable pockets while also reaching relatively dense areas of population and useful destinations is difficult or impossible with this street layout.

In some cases, there are bicycle and pedestrian paths that break blocks up into smaller areas, but they aren't consistently in place from neighborhood to neighborhood. Single-use zoning is the norm, with residential, commercial, and retail spaces kept segregated from one another, so most paths don't really take you anywhere other than the local neighborhood. Such paths may be nice for recreation, but they aren't able to provide a suitable alternative to getting around the city by car.

Alright, enough picking on Eden Prairie. Let's find another point of comparison. How about Woodbury, a somewhat more populated suburb of about 67,000 that lies just one mile outside the city limits of Saint Paul:


A map of city blocks in Woodbury. Click here for full map.

Oof.

Okay, by my measurement, there are 377 small blocks in Woodbury and 200 big blocks, for a ratio of about 1.9:1. That's slightly worse than Eden Prairie, though Woodbury's development remains somewhat restricted by the Metropolitan Council's MUSA urban boundary line. A fair amount of the southern and extreme eastern parts of Woodbury is still farmland, so there's some potential for the ratio of big blocks and small blocks to improve before it gets fully built-out, but only slightly if future development continues in the same way as what has preceded it. The area that has developed within the MUSA boundary seems a little denser than Eden Prairie, but not by much.

Both of these cities have completely rejected the street grid, and there's hardly a straight line to be found anywhere within them, with the exception of section line roads roughly one every mile in Woodbury. (They had little impact on the layout of neighborhood streets between them, though.)

Alright, let's try and find a suburb that's a little more ordered in its development. How about Bloomington, which lies just east of Eden Prairie. It has about 86,000 residents and is duking it out with Duluth for the rank of fourth-largest city in the state:

Map of city blocks in Bloomington
A map of city blocks in Bloomington. Click here for full map.

Aha! Here we have found something of a "missing link" in the transition between cities and suburbs in our metro area. Bloomington is technically an older city in the metro area, as it was incorporated in 1858. However, the number of people living there grew slowly until just after World War II. The population jumped from 3,600 to 9,900 between 1940 and 1950, then exploded to more than 50,000 in 1960 before leveling off at about 82,000 around 1970.

Bloomington lies south of Minneapolis and the inner-ring suburb of Richfield. The Minneapolis street grids extends through Richfield and is present in parts of Bloomington, particularly between Interstate 35W and Cedar Avenue (Minnesota State Highway 77). However, the grid is much more fragmented in Bloomington, and many blocks are considerably larger—essentially two to four Minneapolis-sized blocks merged together.

There's a certain logic to that, since the lot sizes for individual homes also grew as development moved pushed south and west through Bloomington. The most common residential lot size in Minneapolis is about one-eighth of an acre, while houses in Bloomington are typically on lots about two or three times that size. If a block size that formerly contained 30 homes could now only hold 15 or 10, it might make sense to bump up block sizes by a corresponding amount, in order to avoid creating too much infrastructure for too few people.

That alone might not have been so bad, but the city block structure also began to twist, turn, and break apart first as curving streets and then cul-de-sacs became fashionable among developers in the post-war era.

Lot sizes for commercial and industrial businesses also grew, and retailers were often concentrated into strip malls or shopping centers, all of which were major contributors to the weakening of the street grid. Even though many businesses have the same or similar amounts of square footage as comparable ones on smaller parcels in the core cities, they're separated into single-use buildings and surrounded by parking lots.

All of this helps explain why so few people walk, bike, and take transit in the suburbs as compared to Minneapolis. The idea of a standard city block is completely alien in these areas, and people can live their whole lives without really understanding what it's like to live in a true neighborhood where it's possible to live, work, eat, shop, and do most other things without needing to get on a highway.

As Nick Magrino noted in his Measuring the Metro Area and Getting Real with the Map piece, only the core cities and a limited set of the suburbs can be considered "urban" in a traditional sense. Without the framework of a tight grid or other small-block layout, it becomes nearly impossible to meet or even set meaningful goals for increasing mode share for walking, biking, or taking transit, and it makes it extremely challenging to serve populations like children, the elderly, or those with disabilities who can't move themselves around by car.

While developers have occasionally tried to go back to smaller block sizes in what I like to call "New Urbanish" projects, they are still often isolated in small pods. Going back to the grid is one of the only ways to break developers of their bad habits. But are we already too late?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Getting around the block: City vs. city


A map of the city blocks of Saint Paul. Click here for full map.

In my previous post, I compared the city block layouts of the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. This time, I thought I'd zoom out and compare the whole cities. Above is the map for Saint Paul, a city of about 300,000 residents. Blocks that are green, yellow, and dark red are smaller in size, less than 15 acres, while pink blocks are larger. That's a fairly arbitrary size to mark a transition between small and large blocks, but generally fits with where I'm comfortable getting around. A 15-acre block is at least 0.6 miles in circumference, taking about 12 minutes to circle on foot, with the time and distance increasing as blocks get longer, thinner, and begin to take on strange shapes.

In general, the map shows blocks of the tightest loop you can make with surface streets to circle around any particular point in the city. Some of these blocks extend well beyond the city borders, so these maps make the cities look a bit larger geographically than what you normally see. To simplify my mapmaking, I generally required streets to have car and bike and pedestrian access, which excluded freeways (illegal to walk or bike on) and made campuses and parks look less permeable here than they would be to someone using non-motorized transportation.

The color coding helps indicate the presence of one-way streets and how they impact navigation by car (usually with the same rules applying for bikes). Green blocks can be circled clockwise, while yellow and dark red blocks have one-way streets on their edges that either require at least one left turn (circling the block counter-clockwise), or have turn conflicts that prevent looping the block.

As I noted in my last post, downtown Saint Paul is relatively isolated from the rest of the city, but a dense street grid reaches through most other neighborhoods, creating large, fairly contiguous regions that are fairly easy to walk and bike around, and that can sop up large volumes of car traffic.

Individual neighborhood "islands" contain scattered large block within them, and are separated from each other by longer corridors. The city's network of highways and railways also fans out from the downtown area through the rest of the city. These tend to run past industrial and low-density commercial blocks, but also sometimes bump into other areas of limited development.

Many large blocks appear because of natural impediments like rivers, lakes, and steeply sloping hills. The Mississippi River valley marks the most significant area of big blocks through the city, with wide river flats areas that are largely un- or under-developed. The West Side Flats area just across the river from downtown is notable for getting its residential population cleared out in the 1960s after flooding devastated the area the decade before. However, the low-density commercial development that replaced it still contributes to downtown's isolation from the rest of the city.

Some large blocks on the map are fairly private spaces like cemeteries and golf courses, while others are more permeable to foot and bicycle traffic, such as parks and school campuses.

The relatively sparse road network on the western edge of Saint Paul creates a large lobe extending well into Minneapolis along BNSF rail corridors.

I mapped out 3508 small blocks and 248 large blocks in Saint Paul, which is a ratio of about 14:1. Let's take a look at Minneapolis and see how it compares:


A map of city blocks in Minneapolis. Click here for full map.

Minneapolis is somewhat larger and denser than Saint Paul, with a population of about 407,000. Regions of small blocks are even more contiguous than in Saint Paul, perhaps aided by the fact that the city is a bit flatter than its neighbor to the east.

Interestingly, the Mississippi River channel is narrower through Minneapolis (the city sits upstream of the confluence with the Minnesota River). It's also a bit harder to see freeways cutting through the city than I would have expected.

One-way streets extend much farther into Minneapolis's neighborhoods than into Saint Paul. Some of these one-ways essentially make highways through town, while others are in place because of narrow streets or heavy volumes of parked cars in denser neighborhoods.

Railroads still cut through parts of the city, particularly in paths radiating to the west of downtown and in through Northeast and Southeast Minneapolis, but they don't have quite the same impact as in Saint Paul. The areas northeast of the Mississippi also host a large amount of industrial land along Interstate 35W and the rail corridors. Surface streets are so limited in that area that the convergence of I-35W, Minnesota State Highway 280 and MN-36 creates a "block" that extends all the way to Fairview Avenue—kitty-corner to Rosedale Center mall.

Similarly, the sparse road network along the I-394 corridor creates blocks that extend well into St. Louis Park and Golden Valley, even reaching past MN-100. That same highway makes a significant barrier on the northeastern edge of the city, so circling on surface streets would take you through parts of the old Brookdale Mall in Brooklyn Center.

Circling the block along the MN-62 corridor on the south end of Minneapolis will take you into Richfield, and a large lobe also extends south of the city to encircle Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, which takes up most of the unincorporated area of Fort Snelling.

When making this map, I was surprised at how many blocks were crammed close to Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, and Lake of the Isles. Even areas around Lake Nokomis and Diamond Lake have had a lot of stuff built quite close to them.

Planners in Minneapolis have used the street grid and other small-block layouts to great effect since the city was founded, filling almost every nook and cranny they could find. I count 4,701 small blocks on this map, plus another 225 big blocks—a ratio of nearly 21:1 (significantly higher than Saint Paul's 14:1).

How do you think the suburbs fare in comparison? Stay tuned for a future post.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Getting around the block: Downtown vs. downtown


Map of city blocks in downtown Saint Paul. Click here for full map.

How hard is it to get around the city block where you live, work, or shop? Does that affect the modes of transportation you choose on a daily basis? Does it impact the choices of city planners, or the areas where businesses choose to locate?

Until I started working in downtown Saint Paul, I often avoided the area due to its reputation for getting people lost. There are several one-way streets that create confusion, and the north-south streets are mostly named rather than numbered, so it becomes difficult to keep track of where you are unless you know the pattern. Take a wrong turn, and a driver can inadvertently get sent across one of the long bridges that separate downtown from other neighborhoods.

The streets aren't just an issue for drivers, though. Cyclists are also supposed to ride on the street and take the same circuitous paths as cars (unless you cheat by riding on the sidewalk). Even walking is impacted—I often use the green traffic light as a backup for knowing when to cross, since many pedestrian signals don't activate automatically, but car car signals aren't visible on some corners of one-way intersections.

Recently, I started mapping downtown to try and represent these navigation difficulties, starting with how hard it is to turn where and when you want to. I used green for blocks that can be circled in a clockwise direction with right-hand turns when driving. Yellow blocks mean that one-way streets on at least one side require turning left to make it all the way around. I used dark red for blocks where at least one turn would send you into oncoming traffic—those blocks require you to include at least one other block when circling around.

However, a different pattern began to dominate as I moved away from downtown and into the nearby neighborhoods. "Big" city blocks also create an impediment to navigating the city. The most obvious boundary around downtown is the Mississippi River, but there are highways, railways, and other underdeveloped spaces that almost completely isolate downtown from other neighborhoods. I used a threshold of 15 acres to distinguish "big" blocks (shown in pink) vs. "small" blocks—a number I arrived at for little more reason than 10 acres seemed too low and 20 acres seemed too high.

A square block of 15 acres has a circumference of about 0.6 miles, taking about 12 minutes to walk around, and the time and distance increases as blocks become more rectangular or otherwise elongated. Of course, some smaller blocks can take much longer than 12 minutes to circle on foot due to strange shapes, and the presence of small blocks doesn't automatically mean that you're in a walker's paradise. But in general, I think the resulting maps give a good indication of what it's like to get around.

Compare the above map of downtown Saint Paul with another one I made of downtown Minneapolis. This shows a fantastic checkerboard pattern of blocks that can be circled clockwise, counterclockwise, and the ones that have turn conflicts requiring extra circling of adjacent blocks.


Map of city blocks in downtown Minneapolis. Click here for full map.

Both downtowns have significant "moats" around them, though downtown Minneapolis retains more connections to nearby neighborhoods, especially to the south. In both cities, highways (especially interchanges) make large unwalkable zones, though the straighter mainline sections of the highways aren't quite as bad. Saint Paul significantly tore down a large amount of housing in the West Side Flats area in the early 1960s, and the city's Port Authority redeveloped it as a low-density industrial park. Large areas were also torn down to free up room for the capitol grounds. The park-like capitol lawn is an impressive space, but opening up the area in that way created something more similar to a suburban office park than a downtown zone.

Saint Paul is also much more heavily affected by railroads than Minneapolis is today. Both cities used to have a lot of railroad activity downtown, but only one freight rail corridor still cuts through the center of Minneapolis today, in the Warehouse District on the edge of downtown. On the other hand, Saint Paul sits at the a convergence point of six or seven different railroad lines operated by three different freight companies, including two major transcontinental rail corridors. In the heyday of passenger rail, this was good since it allowed lines to branch out in any direction, but with passenger service almost completely wiped out today, the freight lines present a significant burden on the downtown area.

This map likely helps explain how the West 7th Street neighborhood is one of the most active areas in/near downtown, since it's one of the only continuous connections of smaller, more walkable blocks leading into downtown. The only other similar link is along Robert Street and Jackson Street on the north end of the city—an area dominated by government buildings and a hospital.

Downtown Minneapolis blends into nearby neighborhoods more readily, though there are still significant gaps. I skipped over freeways when making these maps, since it's illegal to walk or bike along them except in limited circumstances, but also avoided routes that are only for bikes or pedestrians. That's mostly just to keep the maps relatively simple—many bike and pedestrian connections are hard to see on maps, and they more frequently involve bridges, which lead to some trouble when mapping. Sometimes a single spot can be encircled by several different "blocks" depending on which bridges or other links you choose to use—I've included some of those, such as on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis, but tried to limit my use of overlapping blocks to keep the maps cleaner.

What stands out to you about these maps? Do they match the way you feel about the ease or difficulty of getting around these parts of town?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Preparing for the zero-carbon highway...and parking lot

Graph of available electric car models by year from 1991 to 2015
A decade ago, the electric car was declared dead. Now there are more models available than ever. (Source: AFDC)

In order to fight climate change, we're heading into a zero-carbon future. This is a problem that needs to be tackled in part by making cities and neighborhoods that are more walkable and bikeable with good access to mass transportation, but it's clear that many people and many places won't make the shift to those ways of getting around. Even in well-balanced urban areas, lots of families will only be able to go car-lite rather than car-free.

Automobiles will remain necessary, though they'll have to start being powered by electric motors fed by carbon-free energy. The state and local governments in Minnesota haven't been particularly active in encouraging the change toward electric vehicles so far, but continuing improvements mean that we will need to pay more attention.

The search for the practical zero-emission car has gone on a roller-coaster ride over the past couple of decades. This began with a burst of interest in EVs in the late 1990s due to mandates that were about to go into effect. California led the way since they have one of the world's most influential car markets, and several other states adopted similarly strict air pollution rules. There was heavy resistance to these requirements, however, and the electric car was declared dead less than a decade after that era began.

The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? showed there was plenty of blame to go around. The film cited the usual suspects like the oil and automotive industries, but also pointed to government officials and a generally uninterested (albeit often uninformed) consumer base. Batteries were specifically absolved in the film's postmortem analysis, but it has to be acknowledged that they've had major feasibility problems in the past. Battery packs have been too heavy, too big, too expensive, had too little capacity, and taken too long to recharge. Still, there were some substantial improvements at the time, including a few cars that used new high-capacity lithium-ion batteries. These technological embers persisted in the ashes of that first pulse of EV development, and sparked a new generation of substantially better electric cars just a few years later.

Those initial EVs from the late '90s through the early noughties were only made available in limited regions, explicitly to comply with government mandates, and were they often only leased rather than sold. As far as I know, none of the models were made publicly available in Minnesota. Zero-emission vehicle mandates were pushed back by about a decade, but are beginning to exert force once again. Things are going a bit differently this time around, and sales of electric cars are picking up steam. By 2025, California will require more than 15% of new cars to be zero-emission vehicles.

While many manufacturers still only offer "compliance cars" in a few states, some models such as the Tesla Model S, BMW i3, and Nissan Leaf can be purchased locally. Recent years have also seen the emergence of plug-in hybrid vehicles which are able to run at least several miles on battery power alone before switching over to a gasoline engine, and many of those are being sold in all 50 states. The most well-known plug-in hybrid is probably the Chevrolet Volt, which has been billed as General Motors' response to Tesla, but many others have also appeared. The BMW i3 notably inhabits both camps, since a range-extending engine is available as an option.

These cars still command relatively high costs, but mass production is bringing prices down for batteries and the raft of other components unique to electric vehicles. Tesla, known for having the only cars with over 200 miles of range per charge, has set the price of their Model S upward of $70,000 (sans government tax credits). However, they struck a balance by including a host of compelling features in the car. This disguises the cost of the drivetrain, but allows it to be highly competitive with gas-powered cars in the same price tier.

Other electric cars have been sold at lower prices, but they've resorted to much smaller battery packs. Both the BMW i3 (upwards of $42,000) and the base edition of the Leaf (starting at $29,000) are prime examples, with just over 80 miles of range in their base configurations. This puts cities like St. Cloud, Rochester, and Duluth at or beyond the driving range of most electrics on the market today. Manufacturers are now racing to match the driving distance of Tesla's offerings while still aiming for distinctly mid-market prices—somewhere near the average cost of a new car ($33,560 last year).

Nissan has a bigger battery option available for the Leaf which brings range to 107 miles per charge and has hinted at even larger packs, and BMW recently indicated their i3 will get a range boost to about 120 miles for the 2017 model year, but those seem to just be incremental improvements. Tesla plans to offer a 200-mile-range vehicle for about $35,000 in 2017, but they may be beaten to the punch by General Motors. Earlier this month, GM showed off their Chevy Bolt (yes, with the most confusing name ever), which is also supposed to reach the 200-mile mark. Their goal is to enter production by the end of 2016. It's hard to say which one of these cars will reach consumers first, but they're both right around the corner.


Level 2 chargers with SAE J1772 connectors dominate the national electric car charging infrastructure, but most aren't very speedy.
This increased travel range presents a problem with charging infrastructure, however. There are three or four different charging systems in use on modern electric cars. Most manufacturers, except Tesla, have settled on the SAE J1772 standard for low-speed charging using alternating current at 120 (Level 1) or 240 volts (Level 2). Most Level 2 chargers I've found are rated for 6.6 kilowatts of output, although some can reach 19.2 kW. Under good conditions, a 6.6 kW charger can restore 20 to 25 miles of range to a battery pack per hour, although the rate drops off as the battery gets closer to full. Not bad if you can charge up at home and mostly stick to short-distance just driving within a single city or metro area.

It becomes very challenging to use these AC chargers on longer journeys, though it's certainly not impossible to use them. On the 408-mile trip from Minneapolis to Chicago, using an electric car with Level 2 AC chargers could require more than double the normal drive time of a gas car, even with a head start on a battery filled with 200 miles of range. To make long-distance travel a reality, automakers are moving away from AC toward high-voltage direct current (more than 400 volts). However, this technology has been in greater flux, and there are three competing DC systems.


A dual-standard 50-kilowatt high-voltage DC charging station at the University of Minnesota sporting both CHAdeMO (blue) and CCS (black) connectors.

BMW and GM, along with other American and European companies, use the Combined Charging System (CCS). This is also known as "SAE Combo" in North America because it expands upon the previously-mentioned SAE J1772 standard by adding two extra DC pins on the bottom. A CCS port can accept either a low-power charge plug or a high-power one, though a high-power plug can't fit into a low-power socket. Despite that problem, it seems like it should be one of the more popular systems, but it's the youngest standard and the others have had a head start.

Nissan and other Japanese automakers use a system called CHAdeMO. This uses a large, round plug which isn't physically compatible with the SAE standard at all, so a high-speed charging socket needs to be placed adjacent to the normal low-speed SAE port on any vehicle that uses this system. CCS and CHAdeMO installations may vary in power between 20 kW up to about 60 kW, making them capable of restoring 60 to 180 miles of range to a 100 mpge car in an hour, although development is continuing on versions that will push that significantly higher.


A Tesla Supercharger filling the battery of a Model S at a California outlet mall.

And that brings us to Tesla, who bring the smallest and sleekest design, able to do both low-speed and high-speed charging through a single unified connector. However, the downside is that this requires adapters whenever non-Tesla charging stations are encountered. Tesla offers adapters for both low-speed SAE and high-speed CHAdeMO plugs, but nothing (yet) for the CCS standard. Their high-speed charging system is called the Supercharger, and can pump 120 kilowatts of power or more, allowing peak charging rates of 360 miles per hour. Again, this ends up being slower in practice due to the slowdown as batteries fill up, but Tesla says that cars equipped with their 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack, good for 257 to 270 miles of range depending on model, can be fully recharged in 70 minutes.

There are already more than 3,500 fast DC chargers deployed through the country across the three different standards. Mapping them out, they reveal some surprising patterns.

Composite of maps showing coverage for CHAdeMO, SAE Combo/CCS, and Tesla fast DC chargers, plus a fourth showing all stations using the previous 3 standards plus Level 2 charging stations
Deployment patterns for the various charging station types. Maps from AFDC.

The two standardized systems are mostly clustered in metropolitan areas, but include some corridors that were probably sponsored by state governments or other regional entities. CHAdeMO has the most stations, but CCS is catching up. One issue is that CHAdeMO and CCS installations usually only have one or two chargers per station, which can be troublesome if you need to charge and come across one that's already in use, blocked, or broken. The small sites greatly increase the chance that you'll have to go somewhere else or sit and wait for a long time to get an available charger.

Tesla appears to be the only entity that's thinking nationally about fast-charging infrastructure, and has stretched them along multiple corridors across the country, facilitating coast-to-coast travel. Notably, the first cross-country leg of the Supercharger network was built through southern Minnesota, and company employees used it to smash the record time for cross-country EV travel in February 2014. Tesla averages more than 4 chargers per station, and some installations have two or three times that number. Despite having the smallest number of stations, Tesla has the largest number of DC fast charger outlets and the broadest coverage area.

The company intended their Supercharger network to primarily be used for intercity travel, so they sometimes aren't available in metropolitan areas. Still, when combined with the extended coverage area available through the (somewhat expensive) CHAdeMO adapter, Tesla maintains a strategic advantage over other automakers.

Most new CHAdeMO and CCS stations are being built with dual-standard chargers, like the one from the University of Minnesota that I pictured above. Dual-standard chargers are apparently only about 5% more expensive than ones only operating on one of the two, so it makes sense to just include both types of connectors. It's conceivable that future stations may be triple- or quad-standard, including J1772 and/or Tesla adapters, allowing all types of vehicles to use them, but I hope one of the three fast-charging types will eventually become dominant and we won't have to worry about the mess of different plugs a decade from now.

For anyone who worries about being able to find a charge point, plug-in hybrid cars also offer an interim solution. Since they include a normal gasoline engine, they can be filled up like regular cars on long trips, but still benefit from using electricity when doing daily driving tasks. This segment of the car market is broadening pretty rapidly, though that's partly because states with zero-emission vehicle mandates are now allowing them to be partly fulfilled with these models (known as "transitional zero-emission vehicles" under California's regulations).

As an example of where this is headed, Chrysler recently announced they'll offer a plug-in hybrid version of their new Pacifica minivan, which the company claims can run 30 miles on electricity before shifting to power from the engine (it also has a built-in vacuum cleaner). Chevrolet also recently updated their Volt with better electric driving range (increased from 35 miles to 53) and improved gas engine fuel economy. However, in the long run, it looks like it will be cheaper and more practical for cars to be all-electric rather than dealing with the complexity of both an internal-combustion engine and a battery-powered drivetrain.

Electric charging will create a big shift in the way we get around, and will have an impact on the built environment. Homeowners are able to install chargers at home, so many drivers will only need to use public chargers on rare occasions. It's hazier what will happen for apartment-dwellers. Certainly some apartment complexes will get chargers, but it's a bit hard to imagine that everyone will be able to plug in overnight. There will always be some drivers who will need to fill up on the go.


Fast-chargers seem to be getting faster by the day, but it's not quite clear how fast they'll be able to become. The standard gas station/convenience store combination we're all familiar with will probably become morph into something different, but what? I expect increased demand for meaningful retail, entertainment, and restaurant options—at least something more substantial than the typical gas station hot dogs and junk food.

The electrification of the car is one of three major shifts that I expect to see in the automotive world over the next few decades, with the other two being self-driving cars and the transition toward car sharing services. Despite all the buzz it gets, I don't expect self-driving vehicles in themselves to significantly change the way we build cities. In contrast, car sharing has the potential to dramatically reduce the number of cars we need on the road—but only if people buy into the concept.

I expect the shift to electric driving to be somewhere in between. Notably, charging stations can fit into tight spaces and can meld with existing parking. They can be in lots or on the street, and sometimes show up in parking structures, such as the Superchargers in Duluth. The valuable city corners occupied by gas stations could still fill up just as many cars even after they're replaced with mixed-use buildings and have the adjacent streets lined with charging outlets.

For places that have seen traditional town centers depleted of commercial and retail activity in favor of areas around off-ramps and frontage roads, thoughtful placement of charging stations is also potentially useful tool for restoring more walkable alternatives.

Of course, while electric cars are quieter and far more efficient than their gasoline-powered rivals, but we still shouldn't give up our more walkable environments in order to accommodate them. We'll always have to remember that electric charging this is a form of parking, so charging spaces bring all of those associated benefits and costs. Choose your locations wisely.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Gold Line needs a literal change of direction

stpaul-woodbury-gateway-2014-02-13
The preferred alignment of the Gold Line/Gateway Corridor running eastward along I-94 from downtown Saint Paul overlaid on a map showing population and employment density as well as other transit routes.

Last Tuesday, the Lake Elmo city council voted 3–2 to reject further involvement in the Gold Line project, also known as the Gateway Corridor. The service has been planned to run through 2.5 to 3 miles of Lake Elmo, but that would take it through some undeveloped areas with very low population density and limited amounts of commercial development. I've been disheartened to see planners push this strange routing, so I see this rejection by Lake Elmo as an opportunity to restore some sanity to a project that has literally gone off in the wrong direction.

The Gateway Corridor only came onto my radar around 2010, but it has moved through the local planning processes relatively quickly. Of course, with some of our regional transit planning efforts taking decades, it's not that hard to stand out.

When it was first talked about, the Gateway Corridor included a study area extending all the way to Eau Claire, Wisconsin (more than 80 miles from downtown Saint Paul). It has been trimmed back and is now shortened to about 12 miles—Still a mile longer than the Central Corridor! The currently preferred alignment runs from Saint Paul through Maplewood, Oakdale, and Lake Elmo, likely with a turn at the very eastern end south into Woodbury (not included in my map).

Rail and bus options have both been considered for this line, but the rail options have been discarded at this point. It's currently expected to be built as a bus rapid transit service with a dedicated busway (similar to the route used by the University of Minnesota's Campus Connector buses).

(MnDOT still has a separate plan to run regional rail service to Eau Claire on the drawing board, though it's not clear when planning for that route will pick up steam again.)

An eastward transit service along the Interstate 94 corridor has been on the minds of planners for decades, particularly due to 3M's global headquarters in a mile-wide section of Maplewood just outside of Saint Paul. It's home to around 12,000 employees, but only two bus routes, the 219 (suburban local) and 294 (express), reach the corporate campus today.

It makes sense to improve service to such a major destination, but I've been continually baffled as Gateway Corridor planners have stuck so close to I-94, seemingly a vestige of the original plan to reach cities in Wisconsin. I was even more surprised when they pushed for building large segments in Lake Elmo on the north side of the highway, a suburb that has fought against denser development.

Lake Elmo has a sizable population of over 8,000, but because it is a community that annexed most of its surrounding township, those households are spread across more than 22 square miles of land. Small towns out in rural parts of Minnesota often have densities of 1,000 to 2,000 people per square mile, but Lake Elmo only tips the scales at 360 per square mile.

There has been a lot of development in the city but it's very spread out because homes are typically placed on large parcels that are two acres or larger in size. Amusingly, the densest blob of population in Lake Elmo is the Cimarron trailer park near Lake Elmo Avenue and 10th Street North.

Woodbury, just to the south across I-94, stands in stark contrast to Lake Elmo. While Woodbury isn't nearly as dense as the central cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, it has an estimated population of nearly 67,000. It has no traditional downtown that I'm aware of, and was only incorporated in 1967, but has seen explosive growth over the last few decades. It is an almost perfect example of 36-square-mile township becoming an incorporated city, though not quite 2/3rds of its area has been actively developed so far.

Neither of these cities is a poster child for dense development, but Woodbury has at least experimented with more urban patterns, such as at City Walk near Woodbury Drive and Hudson Road.

Personally, I don't understand the desire to route such an expensive service (currently estimated at $485 million) into almost completely undeveloped area where the local government is hostile to any reasonable density. It could easily go south of the highway through an existing retail corridor—still very under-developed, but hopefully a region that would be more easily fixable with the right incentives in place.

But even with the Gold Line running south of I-94, is that enough to fix the current transit situation out in the eastern suburbs? Metro Transit barely gets into Woodbury today, only serving a small area in the northeast corner of the city, and only operating express bus routes with limited schedules. While the Gold Line would add more stops and an all-day schedule, the stations would all need to be built around the park-and-ride model. While that would probably work alright for workers in downtown Minneapolis or Saint Paul, I have a hard time imagining anyone would use a park-and-ride stuck next to I-94 in order to get to 3M, a destination that's only a few minutes away on the highway.

The Gateway Corridor really needs to morph into something different—a network that gets a lot more people within walking or biking distance of their nearest stop. If Woodbury was a standalone city, it would be big enough to justify its own transit system. Woodbury has a population comparable to St. Cloud, and is around the size that Rochester was when I was growing up, and both have modest bus systems. While the city doesn't have a traditional layout with a downtown to act as an obvious hub, it is roughly laid out along mile-by-mile grid with fast arterial streets that would automatically encourage a limited-stop style of service.

Here's an example of a simple network that could be built out of a half-dozen routes or so to allow local connectivity while also bringing traffic north and west to connect to the existing Metro Transit network. It gets most of the city within half a mile of a bus stop. In a few places, I routed lines along bikeway corridors or created other new routes (such as a bridge crossing just west of the I-94/I-694/I-494 interchange), but it's likely that such a system could be put together for much less than the current estimated Gold Line price.



Obviously, Woodbury's low density would be a challenge for successfully implementing a network like this. I just slapped this network together quickly by following major roads, but I think it has a few features that would be critical for success. First, I had four routes converge on the 3M campus northwest of the city, fanning out through the city in different patterns. Second, multiple routes converge at two other hubs: Woodbury Village by I-494 and Valley Creek Road, and Tamarack Village on Radio Drive just south of I-94.

Purely as an example, the purple line extends down Radio Drive all the way to Cottage Grove, since I think there's a slim possibility of decent suburb-to-suburb service (in this case, perhaps a link between the Gold Line corridor and the Red Rock service proposed along US-61). There's also some potential here to link to routes along I-494 to cross the Mississippi River into South St. Paul and other southern suburbs.


Before I end, I'll point out another huge challenge that Woodbury must overcome to rebalance its transportation network. The city has a dearth of decent pedestrian infrastructure, with sidewalks and sidepaths largely restricted to major roadways—and sometimes only running along one side of those roads. Here is a sidewalk map from the folks at ITO—green roadways are the only ones that have sidewalks, while red roadways don't have any pedestrian infrastructure (pink indicates actual sidewalks, which is a little confusing, and light green indicates dedicated paths that aren't located next to a roadway—the awkward color scheme is a downside of using this otherwise wonderful free tool).

woodbury-sidewalks-2016-01-10 by Mulad, on Flickr

New bus services through Woodbury would need to have their routes checked for adequate pedestrian infrastructure, and new sidewalks or paths would need to be added where necessary. Woodbury does have a pretty extensive network of off-street paths, however, and it would be important to leverage those routes as much as possible to get people to and from their nearest stops.

The Gold Line really only skims the surface of what's needed for proper transit service in the East Metro, and current plans undervalue the need for infill development in existing built-up areas. We're heading toward a zero-carbon future, and preparing for that requires us to make the most use of what we already have.

It will be far better to get existing suburbs to build up their missing downtowns and connect into regional public transportation networks than it would be to abandon them in favor of magic new greenfield plans. Our transit plans need to reach the hearts of these communities rather than bypassing them for green pastures.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Getting rolling on rail to Eau Claire

This week, a citizen group is holding a couple of public meetings to advocate for a passenger rail link between the Twin Cities and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a corridor that MnDOT suggested in its 2010 State Rail Plan should be built before the year 2030.
The meeting announcement has led me to dig into the route and do some analysis of my own, though this doesn't necessarily reflect what will be presented by the St. Croix Valley Rail Group on Wednesday.


MnDOT's plan suggested a regional rail service operating approximately four round-trips through the day, though presumably they would be spread out, making it unlike peak-only commuter rail service. (Commuter rail had been studied and discarded on this route as part of the Gateway Corridor study, which is instead looking at bus rapid transit for the much shorter Gold Line route).


Wisconsin's Department of Transportation had also been working on a 20-year rail plan around the same time as Minnesota, though it was put on pause following the Tea Party-infused political surge later that year which put Governor Scott Walker in office alongside a much more conservative legislature in the winter of 2010–2011.

Wisconsin then ended up with a near-total abandonment of passenger rail planning. The official state rail plan document was finally approved last year, and includes possible links to Eau Claire, Madison (where federal funding was famously turned down by the state), and Green Bay.

That's good, but a bit underwhelming, considering how Wisconsin's population is less heavily concentrated than Minnesota's (see this map of cities with populations greater than 5,000 and contrast it to the one for Minnesota), so I expected a couple of other interesting links. These seem to be cribbed from older Midwest Regional Rail Initiative plans, a multi-state effort for high(er)-speed rail that was once led by Wisconsin.

Wisconsin's rail plan for the year 2030 includes possible connections to Eau Claire, Madison, and Green Bay.
One significant link that seems like it's missing is some sort of connection from Eau Claire to Green Bay. Frustratingly, the most direct link via Wausau has been mostly abandoned at this point, though it would still be possible to have a fairly good path through Stevens Point and Appleton (which might make it a better idea anyway).

But for this post, I want to focus on Eau Claire, which lies about 100 miles east of Minneapolis. The city itself only has a population of about 65,000, though there are a number of nearby towns including Chippewa Falls which creates a small metro area of about 165,000 people. Menomonie is also close by, and the Eau Claire-Chippewa Falls-Menomonie Combined Metropolitan Statistical Area now reaches a population of almost 210,000.

Eau Claire and Menomonie (at nearby Menomonie Junction) had rail service on the Chicago & North Western Railway's Twin Cities "400" until July 23, 1963, about 8 years before the introduction of Amtrak. A timetable from 1962 listed travel time at 114 to 120 minutes from Minneapolis to Eau Claire and 85 to 90 minutes from St. Paul to Eau Claire (the eastbound train was slightly faster, at least on paper).

This was one of the three fastest trains to run between the Twin Cities and Chicago, although it had the major flaw that it only ran once per day per direction. That made it very hard to compete with automobile and air travel. Even today, Eau Claire has two daily round-trip flights to Chicago, subsidized through the Essential Air Service program (though they will still cost you more than $350 round-trip).

Restoring passenger rail service on the corridor has the potential to provide a more frequent transportation option for the area's population while also reducing costs, especially compared to flying: The existing Eau Claire air service costs close to 70 cents per mile when EAS funding is included, while the average cost for Amtrak to carry a passenger one mile is about 40 cents (also including their subsidy).

It's certainly a bit tough to imagine reestablishing service that was abandoned by the railroads more than 50 years ago now, though it's important to note that Wisconsin's population has grown by 40% since 1963, and Minnesota's has grown by 55%. Even if the potential market for rail service remains relatively small, it continues to grow year over year.

So, what are the challenges facing restoration of service on this line? Here's a map I put together of single-tracking and sidings along the corridor, to give an idea of the route's capacity:



Between Saint Paul and Eau Claire, there are only four places with long sidings or segments of double-tracking, plus another short siding at Menomonie Junction, which limits how often trains can pass each other. It's 38 miles between the double-tracked segment in Hudson eastward to Menomonie, according to Google Maps' "Satellite" view, and about 46 miles from Hudson to the longer siding near Elk Mound. [Update: It turns out that I missed a siding between Woodville and Hersey, which reduces the longest stretch of single-tracking to 21 miles.]

MnDOT's rail plan only suggested running four round-trips per day (eight total trains), and the Federal Railroad Administration's Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory suggests that there are only about four freight trains per day, so with appropriate scheduling, it's conceivable that 12 daily trains (less than one per hour) could operate over that gap without needing any new infrastructure. Still, it would be better to add a few new sidings to shorten the gap. Even with upgraded track speeds, passenger trains could take half an hour to 45 minutes to cover the gap, and freights could take more than an hour, potentially leading to serious delays on trips that should only take two hours end-to-end.

A few additional sidings would be a good idea, likely including one near Baldwin to be about halfway along the line. There are also clusters of freight customers near Menomonie and Truax which should have their spurs connected to shared sidings. That would allow the main track to be kept clear for through traffic while freight crews deal with the relatively slow process of attaching and detaching rail cars at the customer sites.

Much more of the line used to have double-track and sidings, but it was pulled out over the decades as freight traffic consolidated onto fewer routes and the need to keep extra track for passenger service disappeared. This means that there are few physical obstacles to restoring it, but it will cost a considerable amount of money. Each siding would likely cost several million dollars.

The tracks have also been allowed to degrade over the years, so the allowed train speeds are not as high as they once were. Freight trains can reach a maximum of 50 mph on the route, but only for a few short segments, according to a 2007 Union Pacific timetable I scraped off the Internet a few years ago. 85% of the route was limited to 30 mph or less at that time, though things may have changed since then.

The timetable notes that passenger trains are allowed to go 10 mph faster than freights on the line, but that doesn't help much when comparing it to the nearby Interstate 94 which has recently been updated with 70 mph speed limits (increasing from a rural freeway limit of 65 mph that Wisconsin had for many years).

Restoring tracks to 79 mph service, the typical standard for passenger service in the U.S., or beyond into "high-speed" territory will require an investment of a few hundred thousand dollars per mile. This type of work involves removing worn-out ties/sleepers, refreshing track ballast, and smoothing and straightening the rails themselves. Depending on the age and quality of the rails, they may only need to be run through a grinding machine to restore a good running surface, but bad segments would obviously need to be replaced.

The line is in relatively good shape as far as signaling goes, but would still need to be significantly improved for passenger trains to run on the route. The line has automatic block signaling (ABS) in place for all but about six miles of track, but future passenger lines are required to have positive train control (PTC). It's unclear how much that would need to cost, since it is still a new technology and price estimates have fluctuated wildly over the past few years.

That's a major hurdle, though the freight company may be required to implement it anyway if it carries hazardous materials on the route. If that's the case, then adding passenger service back on the route would be beneficial to the railroad, since the costs could be shared between the freight and passenger operations (with passenger trains most likely being funded by state and local governments, though the possibility of a privately-funded operation probably shouldn't be discarded entirely).

If the line is extended beyond Eau Claire as shown in the Wisconsin Rail Plan map above, the challenges would be similar for the next 120 miles of track. However, the last nine miles between Wyeville and Camp Douglas (where the line could merge with today's route of the Empire Builder) deserves special note: That section of track appears to be disused and in danger of abandonment. Google's aerial images show the right-of-way in a condition of poor repair, and miles of underused rail cars were parked there for long-term storage when pictures were taken.

That's yet another reason why planning of passenger service to or through Eau Claire needs to get going right away, before those tracks disappear.

The St. Croix Valley Rail Group is planning two presentations for Wednesday, September 23rd. I haven't had any direct contact with the group, but thought the timing presented a good opportunity to do some of my own digging. The meetings are scheduled at 5:30 and 7:00 pm, respectively:
River Falls Public Library
140 Union St
River Falls, WI
5:30 pm

Hudson House Grand Hotel
1616 Crest View Drive
Hudson, WI
7:00 pm

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sunset Unlimited: Restoring passenger rail on the Gulf Coast

Up here in Saint Paul, the Mississippi River passes within blocks of where I live and work. As the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached, I started looking toward the other end of this waterway that links the Midwest to the South because I wanted to better understand the lasting impact of the storm on one of my interests, the nation's passenger rail system. Ever since the hurricane happened, service on Amtrak's Sunset Limited route has been suspended east of New Orleans, and the reasons why haven't been well-defined.

What could have damaged tracks so badly that it would still be out of service ten years later? Even though Katrina was the deadliest storm to hit the U.S. since 1928, was its impact so great that we couldn't restore the modest service that was running before the storm? In reality, the hurricane is probably just a convenient excuse for the halt of passenger operations and not an outcome that should be tolerated.

Surprisingly, when Amtrak formed in 1971, the system didn't include any service between New Orleans and northern Florida. It took over two decades of campaigning by the region before a direct link was reestablished in 1993. Even when the train did run on the line, it was only three times a week each direction—the same frequency that it's always had on the route's western section from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

I decided to take a look at the layout of tracks along the route to try and understand why it has continued to take so long, using a map format like what I used on the Empire Builder route several months ago. I focused on the 770-mile stretch that is still suspended between New Orleans and Orlando.



When I started, I expected to find something obviously out of place along the route, but as I traced the line through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, everything seemed to be in good order.

However, it was obvious from the aerial imagery that there were a few different sections to the corridor which carry different amounts of traffic and are maintained to different standards. I compared my map to railroad crossing data from the Federal Railroad Administration (which I used to make the map in my previous post) and made note of these five main segments:
  • Starting from the west, the Sunset Limited used mainline tracks that run from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, and then toward Montgomery, though the train turns off the mainline in the small town of Flomaton, Alabama, right next to the border with Florida. For this distance of about 210 miles, the track see about 15 to 18 freight trains per day. The FRA railroad crossing database still lists top speeds up to 79 mph, which is the maximum for most passenger rail lines across the U.S. The longest distance I found between sidings was 13.8 miles.
  • From Flomaton, the line heads south to Pensacola, Florida and then east to Tallahassee, covering a distance of about 240 miles. This section of the line is much quieter, only seeing two or three trains per day. Speeds appear to range from 30 mph up to 59 mph, a number that signifies that the line lacks any illuminated signals to help control train movements. The longest distance between sidings here is 31.1 miles
  • For the next 105 miles from Tallahassee to Lake City, there are about 7 trains per day, and top speeds now appear to be about 40 mph in most places (which appears to be a reduction in speed from before the storm in 2005). The longest stretch between sidings is 18.4 miles.
  • The 62 miles from Lake City to Jacksonville host 8 to 12 trains per day and have speeds up to 79 mph, with the longest single-track segment being 12.5 miles.
  • The 151 miles from Jacksonville to Orlando still has three Amtrak passenger trains in operation, the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, and the Auto Train (an oddball route that only stops in the Orlando suburb of Sanford). The FRA data indicates there are 8-14 trains per day in total, though it doesn't seem to include traffic from the new SunRail commuter service near Orlando. the spacing between sidings is fairly short, only reaching up to 11 miles apart. Most of the commuter rail section near Orlando is double-tracked.
CSX Transportation is the railroad that owns the tracks all the way from New Orleans to Orlando (the western segment of the train that is still in operation is run on Union Pacific tracks from Los Angeles to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where it switches to BNSF tracks for the rest of the route to N.O.). Their heaviest damage in the storm was between New Orleans and Mobile.

Just east of New Orleans, the tracks cross the Intracoastal Waterway, which connects Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. The line then passes into Mississippi and through communities such as Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, and Biloxi, which were among the places hit hardest by the wind and storm surge during the hurricane. In Pass Christian, the surge measured 27.8 feet and was combined with a relatively high tide.

That level of surge is enough to completely obliterate homes and other modest-sized buildings. The rail line suffered too as tracks were washed out and bridges destroyed and electrical signaling huts that were flooded with saltwater as the water crashed ashore. In some places, ships and barges floated up onto the ground and eventually settled onto tracks as the waters receded.

Map of train traffic volumes at grade crossings in the southeastern U.S.

About 100 miles of track was severely damaged or destroyed, but with 15 to 18 trains per day, it was important for the railroad to be repaired and brought back into service. The railroad and several contracting companies worked for four months to restore service between New Orleans and Mobile.

It's less clear how bad the situation was in Florida, along the second notable section of track in my list. Pensacola did experience a modest storm surge of about five feet, but that didn't cause as much damage, so the line was back in operation pretty quickly. Only the track nearest Pensacola would have been affected by storm surge—most of the distance from Flomaton to Tallahassee is inland and would have only been damaged by wind and creeks and rivers swollen by rain.

And yet, this relatively protected stretch of track is probably the real culprit preventing the resumption of service. With only two or three trains per day, there isn't enough revenue from freight traffic to warrant maintaining tracks at the level that passenger trains really need.

I was surprised to see that train frequencies were so low along that stretch of track, since the Gulf Coast seems like an important economic region to me. But rail freight tends to move in a more hub-and-spoke pattern like airlines rather than a point-to-point service like highway vehicles do.

Map of train speeds at grade crossings in the southeastern U.S.

A line with just two or three freights per day often only justifies enough maintenance to operate at speeds of 10 to 30 miles per hour, which is far too low for passenger services. Extra outside funding is often needed to cover the cost gap when passenger operations exist on otherwise quiet lines. That's likely one of the reasons why Sunset Limited service hasn't resumed: Either previous funding sources dried up, or the railroad increased the amount of money they were asking for after the hurricane and subsequent repair work.

Running more trains, whether freight or passenger, would allow the cost to be spread more widely, but that idea hasn't gotten much traction so far. Amtrak studied the route back in 2009, but only looked at either restoring the previous tri-weekly train or two options for running a daily service (one was an extension of the City of New Orleans from Chicago, while the other was a standalone New Orleans to Orlando train).

Amtrak's underwhelming conclusion? Restore the train as it had been before, despite it's infrequent service and all the delays and complication involved in running a train all the way from coast to coast.

Studies like that are asking the wrong question and getting the wrong answer. What the country really needs is for Amtrak to add frequent, speedy service so that their trains can be used as day-to-day transportation for many more people. That would broaden the benefits that the company provides, and hopefully reduce their operating losses as well.

Here are populations for some of the metropolitan areas from New Orleans on east to Orlando:
  • New Orleans region - 1.2 million
  • Gulfport region - 383,000 
  • Mobile region - 414,000
  • Pensacola region - 461,000
  • Tallahassee region - 376,000
  • Jacksonville region - 1.4-1.5 million
  • Orlando region - 2.3-3.0 million
It's about 620 miles from New Orleans to Jacksonville, the longest gap between 1-million-plus metros on the corridor. That's considerably longer than the 400-mile rule of thumb used in rail planning, though there are a lot of people questioning whether that's a valid rule.

Still, there are a few shorter segments that look good on paper. Here in Minnesota, we've been looking at adding eight daily round-trips on the 150-mile Northern Lights Express corridor from Minneapolis to Duluth. The Twin Cities has a population up to 3.5 or 3.8 million, and the Duluth area has a population around 280,000.

Orlando and Jacksonville two 1-million-plus metros about 150 miles apart, which makes that corridor an ideal candidate for increased rail service. New Orleans-Gulfport-Mobile and Jacksonville-Tallahassee are also pretty similar distances (144 and 167 miles, respectively).

Having multiple daily trips on the eastern and western segments would probably improve the viability of the middle section of the line, the most likely source of trouble today. The service improvements might even justify a new, more direct rail alignment between Mobile and Pensacola.

Similarly, if we look to cities west of New Orleans, there are some interesting combinations possible if the line started in Texas:
  • Baton Rouge region - 820,000
  • Lafayette region - 479,000 to 616,000
  • Houston region - 6.3 million
  • San Antonio region - 2.3 million
Houston to New Orleans is about 363 miles, which makes puts it in that ideal distance zone for frequent, high-speed service. Houston is also a notable destination because the Texas Central high-speed rail service is being planned to connect that city to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Frustratingly, a segment of track between Lafayette and Baton Rouge has been abandoned, so it would take some significant investment to link that city, but it would be worthwhile in the long run.

Amtrak's trouble with restoring the Sunset Limited or pursuing even better options shares the same symptoms that the company has all across the country. They've lacked the funding and motivation to pursue service improvements in areas that would bring the biggest bang for the buck while also adding to the system's overall connectivity. Amtrak needs better funding to pursue these opportunities, otherwise we'll look back in a couple decades and still find a skeletal national network that hardly looks different than what we have today.