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No Matter The Implementation, Light Rail Doesn’t Spur Development

A number of  years ago the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) for the St. Louis region looked at options to get light rail transit to north county and south county, see MetroLink Northside-Southside Study. The final report on October 10, 2008 recommended future routes to North County and South County that included using part of existing roadway. I wasn’t convinced.

Last week I posted about things I liked about DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) but today I’m going to use DART to talk why I’m cautious about expanding out own light rail system, MetroLink.  Light rail as a mode of transit moves people well, but it doesn’t automatically spur development the way a streetcar can and costs far for than a bus line.

Just before I left for my trip to Texas and Oklahoma I received the following publication at a transit-oriented development event here in St. Louis.

ABOVE: Cover of REALTORS & Smart Growth’s On Common Ground publication from Summer 2009 featured DART’s light rail on the cover.

Looked exciting, I couldn’t wait to see and experience it.  Let’s take a look at the reality of light rail in Dallas.

ABOVE: Light rail in downtown Dallas uses Pacific Street, cars are banned except in a few places where they’re kept separate.

In downtown Dallas numerous light rail lines converge on Pacific Street, now closed to traffic, with exceptions in a few limited spots. It’s a pretty lifeless street other than people going to/from the light rail stations. Pedestrian traffic is less than other nearby streets. No sidewalk cafes, not much of anything other than a couple of stations. This is what you get when you give a roadway such a single, and limited, purpose.

On the plus side their light rail is highly visible, whereas our MetroLink is nearly invisible in downtown St. Louis since it runs under Washington Ave and under 8th Street. The planned northside-southside lines in St. Louis would go through downtown at grade and be visible.

DART’s blue Line South


ABOVE: South of downtown Dallas the light rail follows old railroad right-of-way initially
ABOVE: Continuing south the line goes through a neighborhood where the street arrangement has been modified to give the line a private route. The Blue line has been in place since June 1996 yet vacant land and boarded up houses remain.
ABOVE: South of Illinois Ave. DART’s Blue line goes into the median of Lancaster Rd. Kiest, VA Medical & Ledbetter (end) station opened less than a year later on May 31, 1997
ABOVE: One of several auto-centric strip shopping centers along the Blue line
ABOVE: For miles I observed no indication the light rail line made any impact on development in the last 15-16 years
ABOVE: The stations for the Blue line are very removed from existing commercial and residential development.

Blue Line North


ABOVE: Unlike the Blue line southbound, other lines are often elevated along former rail lines. The result is disconnection from the suburban sprawl below.
ABOVE: Many stations along the Blue line northbound are park-n-ride lots
ABOVE: The current north end of the Blue line, downtown Garland TX, is starting to build more urban. Click image to view in Google Maps.

I’ve got hundreds more images from DART’s Blue & Red lines but you get the idea. Relatives and friends in Dallas said they don’t use the light rail because it’s too inconvenient to use, having to drive to the station and park. They’d just as soon drive to their destination.

Light rail, by design, is separated from its surroundings. It’s below grade, elevated above grade, squeezed in the middle of a busy roadway, etc.. But it’s not connected to the street grid in the way a streetcar or even a bus is. Thus, many have to drive to reach a station.

Both the streetcar and bus are right outside the door and both make frequent stops so you don’t have massive areas without service, like you do with light rail. That said, I can’t imagine taking a bus to the airport. Conversely, when I go to the Delmar Loop I take the #97 (Delmar) MetroBus because it’s far more convenient.

Back to the northside and southside MetroLink expansion. I’d support rail transit but only in streetcar or BRT form. Light rail costs more to build and as we’ve seen in St. Louis it hasn’t produced measurable development.

St. Louis was developed largely with help from streetcars, horse drawn initially. I expect, no I demand, development to be a result of investment in transit infrastructure.

— Steve Patterson


Most Mobility Scooters Too Long For Public Transit

We’ve all seen television commercials advertising how a mobility scooter can make life easier for adults with mobility issues:


But ever notice they don’t show users on public transit? There’s a reason why, the length of these scooters means they aren’t ADA-compliant and thus have a hard time flitting in transit vehicles (both buses and trains).

Pride is a manufacturer of scooters and power chairs, many of their 3-wheel scooters are 40+ inches long and 4-wheel scooters are 47+ inches long. By contrast, my Jazzy 600 Powerchair, also by Pride, is just 36.5″ long. Why does this matter?

Several times this year I’ve seen others with long scooters trying to travel on the bus. These scooters barely fit on the lift and maneuvering them inside the bus is nearly impossible. Twice now I’ve had to move to give them the extra space to turn around. One wanted seats up on both sides to give him enough room to make a circle, he was visibly upset when the bus driver told him that wasn’t possible since one chair was already on board, my chair.

ABOVE: Mobility scooters exceed the maximum length allowed within ADA-compliant spaces, such as transit buses

Similarly, on light rail they can’t get into the fold-up seat area without blocking the aisle. Turning around is also impossible when trains are crowded.

People are buying these devices not designed for use on public transit or in ADA-compliant bathroom stalls and getting upset when it proves difficult. If you, a friend, or a relative need a device to help with mobility consider the overall length if it’ll be used on public transit.

— Steve Patterson


Transit Ideas Worth Copying From DART

Yesterday I posted about the visibility of the DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) headquarters and store, today I want to share some other items I liked about their transit service on my short visit last month.

Posted Schedules for bus & train

Knowing when a bus or train will arrive is important information to know. Having this information available at the point where you’d catch the bus or train would be incredible. For many riders of DART they have such information, those of us that use Metro in St. Louis can only fantasize having.

ABOVE: Many DART bus stops have the schedule posted for the route(s) the stop serves — very helpful information!
ABOVE: At points where many buses converge the schedules for many routes are posted
ABOVE: Bus & rail schedules are in a quick and easy to read format that tells the user at what time after the hour the next bus or train will arrive.

Additional Cars Added to Light Rail

DART increased capacity of their light rail vehicles in a very creative way:

DART is updating its fleet of 115 light rail vehicles (LRV) by inserting a new, low-floor insert between the existing sections of the vehicle adding seating capacity and improving access through level boarding. The newly modified vehicles began service on June 23, 2008 with car #151.

Known as Super Light Rail Vehicles (SLRV) because of the greater length and added passenger capacity, the SLRV will seat approximately 100 passengers compared with 75 on the current vehicles. Standing passengers on the vehicle can nearly double the capacity. (DART)

They’ve had to modify stations, something we [may] not be able to do.

ABOVE: Light rail vehicles are from Japan’s Kinki Sharyo Co., Ltd., but accessibility was an issue. Click image for more info on manufacturer.
ABOVE: Since the system opened in 1996 they had special raised waiting platforms for the disabled, operators would have to put a bridge in place to enter/exit because of the steps. Seriously?
ABOVE: DART just added two non-powered sections into each light rail train. These feature a low floor with areas designed for two wheelchairs and two bikes.
ABOVE: Interior of these new sections feel spacious. Note the floor color changes to designate the wheelchair/disabled area on the right. Photo taken from the other such spot.

Bike Rack on Light Rail

Besides the easy boarding for wheelchairs I like the space to hang bikes in the newer low-floor cars. The seating in these is arranged facing inward rather than to the front or back, this gives more floor area and more standing room.

ABOVE: A rider just hung his bike from one of two overhead hooks in the newly added train section.
ABOVE: Rider about to sit down behind his bike on the crowded train

Final Thoughts:

It’s good to look to see what’s being done in other cities to see what might be good to use at home. I rode several light rail lines and two bus routes in my 30 hours in Dallas, I’d like to return with more time.

The bus vehicles were different than ours but no major surprises. The wheelchair lifts didn’t seem as robust as our lifts but I didn’t get dropped.

— Steve Patterson


Transit Visibility: Metro vs DART

The headline isn’t referring to the visibility of transit vehicles, but the transit agency itself. More specifically the transit store and board of directors.

ABOVE: Any clue what goes on here? Let’s get closer so you can see.
ABOVE: It’s obvious now, right?

Above is the entrance to Metro’s MetroRide Store where you can get transit schedules and buy transit passes. Everyone walking by on Washington Ave would know that, wouldn’t they? The Convention Center MetroLink station is a block to the east, the #40 (Broadway) MetroBus also stops there.  Some photo ID services are here, seniors and disabled have to visit the strip center on DeBaliviere. Metro’s headquarters is in a building a block away from the Laclede’s Landing MetroLink station, not serviced by a single bus line.

In Dallas last month I noticed how DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) was totally different, you know, making sure people knew how to find it.

ABOVE: Dart’s offices are located at one of the busiest light rail stations, the Akard Station. The yellow windows on the right market the store just inside their HQ.
ABOVE: Well that’s pretty clear! No confusion about what I’ll find inside.

Retailers know to get customers they need to draw people into their stores for a sale to happen.

I also like how DART calls their light rail simply “rail”, very equal to “bus.” All transit riders ride DART regardless of whether they ride bus, rail, paratransit.

Visibility extends to the board managing the agency.

ABOVE: DART’s boardroom is just inside the building entrance unlike Metro where you have to sign in with security and be escorted upstairs just before the meeting starts.

Our MetroRide Store description tells another part of the problem: Location

Trying to decide which Metro Pass or Ticket is the best value for you? For assistance with your Metro fare purchases, you can call or visit the MetroRide Store, 701 Convention Plaza, St. Louis, MO 63101, 314-982-1495, (located inside America’s Center at 7th & Washington, Downtown St. Louis), open 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. weekdays. The MetroRide Store accepts MasterCard, Visa, Discover and American Express, personal checks, debit cards and government transportation vouchers.

701 Convention Plaza? Some know Convention Plaza used to be called Delmar but part downtown was renamed in the 1970s when the Cervantes Convention Center was built. In the early 1990s the convention center was expanded two blocks south to Washington Ave, at that time Convention Plaza was bisected by the expanded building.

ABOVE: Looking at a map someone would logically go to 7th & Convention Plaza to find 701 Convention Plaza, right? But they’d be too far north if they did.

The address should be 703 (or 705) Washington Ave!

You have to really want to buy a transit pass or attend a Metro board meeting to seek either out. Neither should be as difficult as they are. Tomorrow I’ll share a few ideas I think we should consider copying from DART to improve bus and rail service in St. Louis.

— Steve Patterson


New Grand Viaduct Huge Improvement, Development Opportunities Remain

Several years ago I suggested an urban bridge over the train tracks at Grand, storefronts lining each side of the bridge. These would be built on the ground below and designed to have a floor level even with the bridge. With the old bridge out of the way we can see this was entirely possible — only 3-4 train tracks have to be crossed and combined with Scott Ave the bridge span would’ve been 250 feet for so.

ABOVE: Aerial of Grand after the old viaduct was removed and before the new bridge was built. Click image to view in Google Maps.

But the new bridge wasn’t designed with that in mind. However, the spans aren’t as long as the prior structure because previously open areas were built filled-in.

ABOVE: Solid fill under much of the roadway, a short span is seen over Bernard St.

As you can see from the above image it’s just ground next to the viaduct, it’s not spanning the Mississippi River! Hold that thought though while we take a look at what was replaced and what was built.

ABOVE: The old bridge had narrow & patched sidewalks on each side with a rusty railing.

Crossing the old bridge/viaduct as a pedestrian was a miserable experience. It was narrow and at the center it got crowded with transit riders for the #70 (Grand) MetroBus and MetroLink.

ABOVE: Looking north from the old transit stop in June 2010

Now it’s a much better pedestrian experience!

ABOVE: More generous width will allow wheelchairs & strollers to meet and pass. Planters take away some width but they’ll add some softening materials.
ABOVE: Towers are meant to recall an earlier viaduct that was replaced in the 1960s.
ABOVE: Workers are still putting the MetroBus stop together but this will be great for those who ride the city’s busiest bus line.
The area between roughly Gratiot St and Scott Ave is open span, not fill.

Ok, I like the new viaduct but it’s still a long distance from end to end — I’d still like to see structures built up next to the bridge over time. Next to the open section shown above might be problematic, but the earlier area near Scott Ave shouldn’t be difficult.  However, a building foundation next to the foundation for the fill wall might be challenging, I’m not an engineer.

ABOVE: At the south end just before Papin St the grade comes up to the sidewalk. I see no reason a building couldn’t be built close to the sidewalk.
ABOVE: A nondescript building remained up to the sidewalk in June 2010 in the space between Papin St and the Captain D’s.
ABOVE: That building was razed, clearing the land for something new

The old sidewalk was narrow and the new sidewalk isn’t much wider, it also lacks street trees.  I’d like to see new buildings north and south of Papin St but I don’t think they should abut the sidewalk. Keep them back 10-15 feet, not 75+ feet the way Saint Louis University tends to do. Since the above is at grade and it won’t have on-street parking to separate pedestrians from traffic it really needs to have street trees and more width.

Remember that SLU wants more students walking from the main campus north of the viaduct to the medical campus to the south. The plants on the viaduct will help but we need street trees between cars and pedestrians where possible and buildings to give a sense of enclosure. This will be easier to accomplish on the west side so let’s cross Grand and have a look.

ABOVE: The bridge/viaduct ends on the south side of Gratiot St. so there is more opportunity to connect from this point to Chouteau.
ABOVE: Huge opportunity to create a more urban context and give the sidewalk some protective enclosure.

Unfortunately with SLU involved and their plan to raze the Pevely building in the background I’m not optimistic about the future of this area. It’ll likely be much like walking next to SLU. Perfect manicured green grass and buildings set back 100 feet or more from the sidewalk, totally anti-urban rather than appropriate transit adjacent development.

Hopefully I’m wrong and good urbanism will get built on either side of Grand.

— Steve Patterson