Friday, August 30, 2013

The State Fair's missing sidewalks

For's "Our Fair State" series during the Minnesota State Fair, I don't really have a good story to tell about an out-state event. I do, however, live less than a mile from the State Fairgrounds and wanted to share a little of what this heavily pedestrian-oriented event is like to be around the other 353 days of the year.

View Missing Minnesota State Fair sidewalks in a larger map

One of the most surprising things, considering how the fair itself is known for its huge crowds of people doing that seemingly unnatural thing of walking, is that the fairgrounds is missing some sizable chunks of sidewalks around its periphery. Some roads, such as Randall Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue which are on the University of Minnesota Side, aren't major through streets, so may not need sidewalks, but the busy Como Avenue and even busier Snelling Avenue really should see some improvements made.

The missing sidewalk on the north side of Como Avenue between Liggett Street and the University of Minnesota Transitway is mostly just an annoyance since there is still a grassy area to walk on. The lack of a sidewalk on the Snelling Avenue side of the fairgrounds north of Dan Patch Avenue/Midway Parkway is far more dangerous—Snelling Avenue through there is signed at 40 miles per hour, and a lot of traffic goes much faster than that.

Up there, the fence surrounding the fairgrounds directly abuts the roadway near Arlington Avenue, meaning that anyone who attempts to walk along the west side of the road will find themselves walking right in a stream of high-speed traffic. Sadly, there's no real reason to have the fence jut out at that point, other than perhaps to protect a natural gas line. There is enough empty space for a sidewalk along the entire stretch, though retaining the trees and lamp posts may be a challenge. Perhaps an alternative such as hanging plants would be a good alternative to trees in some spots.

When a sidewalk finally does get added on the west side of Snelling, there will still be a problem that Snelling Avenue itself is a busy roadway and hard to cross. But it's possible to take advantage of the fact that northbound traffic can't turn left anywhere between Dan Patch Avenue and Hoyt Avenue and add some pedestrian refuge islands on the south sides of intersections along the road.

Improvements are planned for Snelling Avenue, though a recent intermodal study of the corridor had the northern study area end right at Dan Patch Avenue.  For the Snelling "A Line" enhanced bus service being planned, there is a conspicuously large gap between stations right by the fairgrounds—largely because of the missing sidewalk on the west side.

But for the most part, I've seen the fairgrounds as being a pretty decent part of the neighborhood. After this year, the transit center is moving from its spot on Como Avenue up to the current Heritage Square area. I'm curious what the plans are for the vacated space, since it could be a nice place to develop. Are there any changes you'd like to see around the fairgrounds to make it a better place when the fair isn't going on?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Measure transit quality with your phone


Here are two graphs I made of accelerometer data logged by my smartphone during two different trips I took on Metro Transit lines back in June: One on light rail, and the other on a regular bus. They were just experiments and shouldn't be relied on too much, but they do show that the two types of vehicles are substantially different in the ways they behave.

I've been surprised to have some difficulty finding information about ride quality on mass transit systems, particularly since I find the relative smoothness of the ride to be a compelling argument in favor of rail transit—In my view, ride quality is likely a major contributor to "rail bias." I have to put that in quotes because the implication is that favoritism toward trains, streetcars, and everything in between is based on pure emotion rather than physically-quantifiable factors.

The smartphone revolution (including gadgets like tablets and MP3 players) means that anyone can start gathering data about how good or bad their trip is and start doing some analysis. No longer do you have to wait for a report from some engineering firm contracted out to do the work, or try to sift through dense academic papers. The tool I used to gather data just ended up spitting out raw numbers, so it took a little post-processing to make it a manageable set of data, but it wouldn't be difficult for a smartphone app to be built or extended to directly present users with useful information and comparison points.

Data gathering alone will not end the old bus vs. streetcar vs. whatever else debate, but it's important to bring some real-world measurements into the conversation, since they have been lacking.

For those that are interested, my first graph shows a trip made on the Blue Line (Hiawatha) between Bloomington Central station and Terminal 2–Humphrey station in Bloomington and the MSP Airport area. The second set of data is from a route 3A bus along Como Avenue between about Hamline Avenue and Raymond Avenue. I didn't do anything special to secure my phone in place other than gently holding it down—something that would need to be changed if people try to make repeatable measurements. One document I came across suggested mounting a measuring device on top of a heavy rubber cone placed on the seat—such a cone would dampen some vibrations, but make others more measurable.

Still, with my rudimentary methods, I found it amazing in my graphs to see how much the motion on the 'x' axis (blue, side-to-side motion) went up between taking the train and taking the bus. The the green 'y'-axis plot is for front-to-back motion, while the orange 'z'-axis plot represents up-and-down motion—both of those are harder to interpret visually, though some rudimentary math suggests that y- and z-axis motion is still substantially better than the bus ride. I'll also note that the bus I took the sample on had a very thick cushion on the seat, while the Bombardier LRV I took the light-rail sample on has a very thin seat cushion.

Here are some averages and standard deviations for samples taken along the different axes. I used absolute values when making the averages, otherwise the periodic swinging past the origin line would make the x- and y- numbers very close to zero, and the z-axis average would be very close to 1 (since the z-axis is always being pulled on by Earth's gravity).

Std. Dev.0.0240.0390.047
Std. Dev.0.0480.0470.047

In these two fairly unscientific samples, the bus had average g-loading on the x-axis that was 160% higher than the bus, and it was 24% worse on front-to-back motion, and 17% worse on the z-axis. For me at 220 lbs., the aggregate motion could mean that I'd feel 20 to 40 pounds heavier on the bus than on the train, like I'm swinging around a heavy sack of salt pellets.

But the story isn't all rosy for light rail either—there's a big spike about halfway through my recording, probably due to the train crossing running through a switch, or it may just have been a jerk of my arm as I was holding the phone (perhaps both). Sometime soon I'll have to try this on the Northstar train to see how that one behaves, since it has much more substantial padding on the seats—often making the ride feel smoother—but it also has to share track with heavy freight trains which do a lot of damage to the rails. Hopefully someday we will have some local streetcars to also add into the mix of comparisons.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A rail identity crisis in Minneapolis

View Planned LRT stops in Minneapolis in a larger map

This is what the region's planned light-rail system looks like if you cut it off at the city limits of Minneapolis. It includes the Hiawatha, Central, Southwest, and Bottineau lines. While the first two largely stick to arterial corridors, Southwest (the planned Central/Green Line extension) and Bottineau (the Hiawatha/Blue Line extension) go as quickly as possible to under-populated freight railroad trenches. Again, this is in Minneapolis, where the vast majority of the region's current transit trips begin and end. Something is wrong with this picture.

As of 2013, there are 11 active stations: Ten of them opened in June 2004 when the Hiawatha Line (now Blue Line) started operation, and the eleventh—at Target Field–opened in November 2009 to coincide with the start of the Northstar commuter service. What's really surprising is that, despite the addition of three more routes, the number of stations within the city is only expected to double from 11 to 22: Four have been constructed in Minneapolis for the Green Line (Central Corridor), with probably another five expected to be added for the Southwest extension to Eden Prairie. The Bottineau extension of the Blue Line is only planned to add two stations within the city limits, almost completely bypassing the north side. Looking at these future routes, it almost seems like the Hiawatha Line would have been designed to run out of the city even faster, if not for that pesky Mississippi River in the way.

There are a couple of stops that will be just across the border, of course: Many people would be surprised to discover that the existing VA Medical Center station is just barely outside the city, in the unincorporated territory of Fort Snelling (along with the Fort Snelling stop and the two MSP Airport stops). On the Green Line, the Westgate station is barely past the border—one of the two platforms even extends into Minneapolis by just a few feet. On the planned Bottineau extension, stops at Plymouth Avenue and Golden Valley Boulevard are also just barely outside the city.

It's really remarkable how Minneapolis only gets token access in the Southwest and Bottineau projects. With locally-preferred alignments primarily along freight rail corridors. They are no longer urban transit projects, but are instead commuter or regional services in disguise. And once that fact is acknowledged, it's worth looking at how commuter and regional rail lines are set up elsewhere. In particular, why do we have to with building a double-track light-rail line right next to a freight line when they both have the same 4-foot, 8½-inch gauge? It would arguably be better for the existing freight lines to be upgraded to double-track and run passenger service over that instead of building something totally separate.

There has been some precedent for running light rail on freight tracks: The NCTD Sprinter in San Diego and New Jersey Transit's River Line between Camden and Trenton are two examples. Austin's Capital MetroRail uses essentially the same vehicles as NJT's service, though it is classified as "commuter rail". Those are mostly low-frequency services using significant stretches of single-tracked, non-electrified routes—because it was cheaper to build that way, of course. A closer analog to what's planned for the Twin Cities is likely the UTA TRAX Blue Line in Salt Lake City, which is double-tracked and uses overhead catenary for power.

Frustratingly, the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration have required those lines to use "temporal separation" so that passenger service has exclusive access to tracks during the day, while freight services have exclusive access to track in the overnight hours. The diesel-powered vehicles on the Sprinter, River Line, and MetroRail services are used in Europe on mixed-traffic routes, but somehow we haven't figured out how to do that in the United States because of overblown fears that freight and passenger trains would crash into each other. Even though some services like the River Line have implemented active signaling systems to automatically stop trains before a crash could even happen, the federal government has balked at the idea of having freight service share track with lightweight passenger rail vehicles during daylight hours.

At the other end of the scale, there are some very busy bus corridors in Minneapolis which deserve to be upgraded. Over time, they've been cut out of being potential light-rail lines, though the city is currently pursuing adding streetcar services—something that has caused tension between the city and the Metropolitan Council. Riding the Blue Line down Hiawatha Avenue, it's easy to see why it was derided as a "train to nowhere" ahead of its opening. There are few obvious destinations along the bulk of the route, at least in comparison to historic streetcar corridors like Hennepin Avenue, Nicollet Avenue, Chicago Avenue, University Avenue, and others. The Blue Line does have a massive traffic generator at its southern end with the Mall of America (think of the daily attendance at the Minnesota State Fair, and multiply that by every day of the year), but it's still hard to imagine that rail service along any of those streets would carry any fewer people per mile as the Hiawatha corridor. So are streetcars really the right way to improve service along a busy commercial street which likely has higher inherent transit demand?

The Hiawatha Line blew past ridership expectations when it opened, and now ranks as the 5th-busiest light rail system in the country in terms of boardings per mile. Rather than going "lighter" than "light rail" with streetcars, it seems clear that the true urban corridors in Minneapolis should be getting re-examined for fully grade-separated service like a subway (the "heavy rail" that light rail is "light" in comparison to). That concept was largely discarded in the region many years ago, the argument usually being that "Minneapolis isn't dense enough". Yet the idea hasn't really been revisited even with Hiawatha surpassing ridership levels that weren't expected for another 15 years at least.


Back in the streetcar era, the frequency of service on Nicollet Avenue was every five minutes off-peak and three minutes or less during the busiest parts of the day—it should have been possible to look down the street and see two or three coming your way and a couple of others heading in the opposite direction. Of course, the good thing about sub-3-minute frequencies is that they're showing up all the time, which makes riders happy. But cramming that many rail vehicles onto a surface line mingling with regular traffic means that any disruption can propagate down the line pretty quickly. Each streetcar also needs its own operator, while a longer train can get by with fewer employees per number of passengers.

I'm not sure transit demand is quite high enough that streetcars would go back to historic levels if they were implemented on Nicollet Avenue again, it would probably get pretty close. The Blue Line is running 3-car trains all day long (though they're probably only needed at peak times), so streetcars along Nicollet would have to run three or more times as frequently as Hiawatha's current 10-minute schedule at certain times of day. The frequency can be reduced if multiple streetcars are chained together, but that means larger boarding platforms are needed.

Proper subway lines have higher capacity, faster and more frequent service, and a minimal visual impact on the land above. Longer trains can be used since they don't have to fit between street-level intersections, and the vehicle types can be switched up if the entire route is grade-separated (traditional subway lines allow passengers to walk between cars because the operator cab can be reduced in size—there isn't a need for all-around visibility and there's no risk of crashing into automobiles). Underground trains can operate very frequently and at higher speeds since there isn't cross traffic to worry about—even curves can be eased to allow faster trains, since they don't have to fit past buildings. With rights-of-way reduced or even eliminated, more land is available for developers on the surface, meaning that costs can be offset by very intense transit-oriented development.

Washington, D.C.'s Metro system has really been a poster child for that aspect of building underground. They've also discovered that underground lines stand up better over time since they aren't exposed to weather—a major thing to consider in Minnesota with our heavy use of road salt in the winter. Going underground may also allow the deadlock to be broken between the idea of "railstitution" of busy bus routes with streetcars and the alternate concept of "Arterial BRT" (not technically bus rapid transit since it lacks exclusive lanes, but pulling in every other aspect including better stop spacing, level boarding, and off-board payment).

While the momentum behind existing transit projects in the Twin Cities shouldn't be totally disrupted, it is clear that something has gone wrong with our list of priorities when bridges and tunnels abound on the suburban Southwest LRT corridor, while the far more crowded urban segment along Washington and University Avenues saw tunnels discarded over cost concerns. This isn't just a problem for the Twin Cities region either—many other light-rail corridors across the country have taken the path of least resistance, and ridership has typically suffered because of it. That's not acceptable in a future where people will be asked to live more multi-modal lifestyles.