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MetroLink’s 8-Mile Cross County Extension To Open August 28th

Metro, the St. Louis regional transit agency, is expected to announce today the ribbon cutting for the 8-mile ‘Cross County’ will be held on Saturday August 26, 2006 with regular service commencing on Monday, August 28, 2006. Limited, but free, sample rides are expected on the 26th & 27th.

The 28th is a big day of changes as new bus routes will take affect to coincide with the new light rail. New fares for bus and rail service will also make their debut on the 28th. Regular bus fare will increase from $1.65 to $1.75. A one-way ticket on MetroLink will increase from $1.75 to $2.00.

For more information on schedules and fares see Metro.

– Steve


A Sneak Peek at MetroLink’s Cross County Line on August 22

Rail advocacy group Citizens for Modern Transit are offering a unique opportunity — a chance to ride the new Cross County extension of the MetroLink system before the opening to the general public:

Metro is on the brink of opening the next major extension of MetroLink for the St. Louis Region. It is an exciting time especially for members of CMT/WTS/COMTO – here is your chance to have a Sneak Peek Ride of the new alignment before it opens to the general public. Seating is limited so please reserve your spot early.

You will need to arrive at the Shrewsbury-Lansdowne I-44 Park-Ride Lot on Lansdowne at River Des Peres between 5 and 6:30 p.m. Rides will run on the new alignment between 5 and 7 p.m. Make history with Metro and CMT . . . get on board today!

I’ve already signed up for the August 22 event with a cost of only $5 for CMT members ($10 for non-members). To register click here.

This gives us a clue about the official public opening of MetroLink — sometime after August 22nd. I’m guessing it will be sometime the following week or perhaps just a few days later. It has been many years and many hundreds of millions in the making but I’m glad we are finally at this point. Our region is about to get a renewed interest in rail transit.

– Steve


TOD Sites Abound in St. Louis

Transit Oriented Development, TOD, is a big topic in planning circles. The basic concept is to concentrate development activity around transit such as a subway or light rail station. A good mixed-use project with retail, office and residential can keep a station busy and transit cost-effective. A developer too can maintain/increase profits while building a bigger project.

To date I don’t think we’ve done the best job maximizing the existing MetroLink light rail stations. We are starting to see some work near stations in Illinois but the density is still relatively low. Granted, many of our stations were built in existing areas, some of which are quite urban. For example, downtown was already full and as lofts fill up former offices and warehouses we can be sure rail transit access had something to do with that.

We do have several areas of our light rail system that could benefit from increased development. The first comes to mind is 8th and Spruce, just west of the new Busch Stadium. Here the Metrolink line curves to change from east-west orientation under the highway to north-south under 8th. A new corner building with MetroLink running in the basement could prove popular. With the stadium station in place just across Spruce access would be a cinch. Don’t look for any underground parking with the train in the middle of the footprint but we must get to the point where not every place has dedicated parking. Besides, that is part of the point of transit. In this new building I’d have street-level retail/restuarant space facing both Spruce and 8th, a couple of floors of office space and then residential. Maybe it is at most 6-8 stories high. Still, that would do a wonderful job of urbanizing a prominent corner as well as adding density to a transit stop that doesn’t see much activity outside of game day. This new construction and users could compliment the renovation work in the adjacent Couples Station area.

A similar opportunity exists just to the west, between 14th and 18th along Clark St. Between the Civic Center Station (14th) and the Union Station Station (18th) is development nirvana (see map). At the immediate corner of 14th & Clark we’ve got a nice grove of trees leading to the station platforms. I could see a new building design just to the west, facing Clark, that leaves this corner plaza intact. However, I’d get out the chainsaw for the right building(s) on the corner at 14th. The problem here is the big curve is closer to street grade than I’d like and lowering it might be too costly. But, from what was once 15th to 16th you’ve got a clean shot over the tracks. Same for 16th to 18th.

Concentrating more residences near 18th and Clark would create more daily users for Union Station (so it is not entirely dependent upon tourist traffic). Offering downtown residential units without included garage space might also offer affordability to those that want a car-free lifestyle but cannot currently afford to live near a MetroLink station. Of course, garage space could be built on the main and a few upper levels with retail along the street-face and office & residential over the parking. A mix of housing in numerous price ranges might be the best solution.

While I’d have no opposition to a mid or high-rise tower I don’t think it is necessary either, at least not from a design perspective. Clark and the adjacent numbered streets would have had 3-6 story buildings originally. This creates a nice friendly scale along the sidewalk for pedestrians. Even is part of the structures did get taller a shorter height at the sidewalk would still be best.

The cost-effectiveness of construction over a functioning transit line is the big problem with this plan. The cost of the required concrete tunnel may necessitate more floors just to help break even. The concept is certainly worth detailed analysis.

As Metro (Bi-State) most likely owns the right-of-way used for MetroLink a developer would need their blessing. This would involve a lease or sale of the development rights over the right-of-way. This money could help ease the currently strapped transit agency while providing new users for the system.

Moving west out of downtown I think a new stop at Jefferson Ave is needed. The replacement bridge over the tracks is currently being planned so adding a transit stop during construction would be a simple affair, relative to retrofitting to an old bridge. The site to the east of Jefferson facing Scott (and the UPS facility) is ideal for concentrated development around a transit stop (map). With a new interchange at I-64 and 22nd Street it might actually be possible to connect Scott Ave with 21st or 20th street making it possible for those living at this new area to walk to Union Station. All this is adjacent to the proposed Chouteau Greenway. I’ve already covered the TOD possibilities at Grand in a prior post.

I think our developers do a good job converting existing buildings but when it comes to new construction I think they tend to seek out large tracts. The idea of building on smaller parcels just hasn’t quite sunk in yet. This land near these transit stops is not serving anyone at the moment but if developed could help Metro, the new occupants, adjacent retailers and restauranteurs and the City of St. Louis.

– Steve


Democrats Ignoring Best Way to Create Energy Independence

Earlier this week I received the following from Claire McCaskill, a candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri:

ST. LOUIS — U.S. Senate Candidate Claire McCaskill will visit Fenton, Cape Girardeau, and New Madrid on Wednesday, July 19th, Macon, Columbia, Osage Beach, and Rolla on Thursday, July 20th, and Marshall, Kansas City, and Nevada on Friday, July 21st. Meeting with local farmers, consumers, and community members, she will discuss her plan to bring down the price of gas at the pump and end our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

At a time when Missouri families are suffering from record gas prices, Claire believes we need to strive for energy independence. Our addiction to oil poses a threat not only to our pocketbooks, but to America’s national security as we rely on unstable regimes for our oil. A responsible energy plan will protect consumers, encourage alternative fuels, and reduce our reliance on oil through developing renewable sources of energy and improving end-use efficiency. It will also help revitalize Missouri’s rural economies.

“Now more than ever, it is necessary for the United States to get serious about energy independence,” said McCaskill. “Alternative and renewable energy sources offer the greatest hope for our energy security. Investment in these technologies will not only reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but also stimulate the Missouri economy since our state is a national leader in ethanol production.”

McCaskill’s plan for energy independence will feature detailed measures to protect consumers from price gouging, promote ethanol, alternative fuels, and renewable energy, increase fuel economy, and improve energy efficiency. When Claire goes to Washington, she will be a Senator on the side of Missouri farmers and consumers, not big oil.

“Bring down the price of gas at the pump?” Is she kidding? The “solutions” are what people want to hear — we’ll grow ethanol so farmers will be happy and everyone can keep driving their Hummer. Vote for us and everything will be just fine. BS! Re-read the above — not a single word about actually reducing the use of energy through increased mass transit or discouraging suburban sprawl. All the “solutions” are simply replacements for oil and perhaps modest improvements to the fuel efficiency of future new cars.

I’m going to vote for McCaskill simply because I believe Jim Talent represents an evil wing of the Republican party. But, I am not voting for her nor for the Democrats. The Democrats don’t want to tell the public the truth anymore than the Republicans do: we use too damn much energy as a society and we cannot afford to continue doing so!

– Steve


Mass Transit: St. Louis vs. Toronto

IMG_1711.jpgUsing mass transit in Toronto is vastly different than attempting to get around via transit in St. Louis. While Toronto has bus service, it is primarily limited to areas outside the older inner city.

Toronto has multiple layers to their mass transit strategy: streetcars, bus, heavy rail subway and light rail. It is this layering that gives visitors and residents numerous choices on how to get from A to B without a car. Before I get into the differences in the systems I want to give a bit of background. Toronto was one of the few cities in North America to retain their streetcar system when it was fashionable to rip them up in the middle of the 20th Century. However, the Toronto Transit Commission had intended to abandon the streetcars by 1980. Second, they built a subway in 1955 — a time when no other North American city was doing so. These two decisions 50 years ago are proving invaluable today. Conversely, St. Louis and nearly every American city chose the opposite — remove the streetcars and not implement any sort of high capacity rail system until the end of the 20th Century. We are lucky, some cities are still in the planning stages of their first line.

At right is the view from the downtown hotel where I stayed in Toronto as the #505 Streetcar heads east on Dundas. Headways, or frequency, on this line and others seemed to be in the 5-10 minute range. As you can see the streetcar is not the vintage sort you might see along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, New Orleans’ St. Charles Ave or downtown Memphis. No, these are “modern” streetcars with up to date suspensions, braking and excellent acceleration (service began in 1979, see history). I’ve ridden the vintage lines in the above cities and while they are charming they are indeed slow regardless of traffic. In fact, all three (SF, New Orleans and Memphis) operate largely in dedicated lanes and they are still slow. That is simply due to the vintage technology. But, the modern streetcars are fast, able to jolt passengers if the operator takes off too suddenly. A vintage streetcar can never make that claim.

Toronto operates many streetcar lines, primarily in the east-west direction. They have two subway lines, the original 1955 line coming north out of Union Station following Yonge St. (pronounced Young) and an east-west subway further out along Bloor-Danforth. It is in the east along the Danforth section of the subway where you reach the end and switch to a section of light rail, which I will discuss later.

If you look at Toronto’s downtown transit map you’ll see how the system is laid out. The yellow & green lines are subway systems, the 500-series are streetcars and other lines are bus routes with the yellow numbers with dashed lines representing express bus service. Toronto’s streetcars and bus lines form an efficient grid of north-south and east-west routes. Streetcars intersect with subway stops to make transfers easy.

If you compare Toronto’s much larger downtown area map with St. Louis’ map differences become apparent. The St. Louis map is a clusterf*ck of lines all trying to squeeze in to a tight area in the central business district. The theory being the bus has to get the rider to their office door or they won’t use the system. Still, I can’t help but wonder if a clear grid of north-south and east-west bus routes would not be more straightforward and easy for visitors and casual riders to understand?

Toronto’s streetcars are designed to hold 46 seated passengers and a maximum of 132 if pushed. They have some articulated streetcars that double that capacity. On most routes it appears they run the single vehicles and increase the frequency to handle the demand. Some have said here in the past that a streetcar is simply a glorified bus with more costly upfront capital costs. The real measure comes down to ridership and the Toronto streetcar system is not a nostalgic vintage line like we see in other cities to attract tourists. Regular Toronto citizens use the streetcar to get where they are going. We should be so lucky to have half their ridership on our bus routes.

Density plays a factor in transit, of course. Toronto is far more dense than St. Louis is currently although their lines run out to largely single family “streetcar” neighborhoods. Funding is the other big factor. Up until the late 1990s the Toronto region was divided among multiple municipalities but for efficiency sake (and probably other reasons) they amalgamated themselves into one large municipal government. Still, the Toronto Transit Commission remained a separate entity as it has for decades. I’m sure they’ve had funding issues before but it appears they’ve managed to create a very usable regional transportation system that serves suburban dwellers with bus and subway/light rail while offering those in town an efficient streetcar system. Neither view was compromised for the sake of the other.

IMG_1849.jpgWhile nearly all the Toronto streetcars operate in what is commonly called “mixed traffic”, with the streetcar sharing a lane with auto traffic, a few lines have dedicated lanes. At left is the #510 Spadina north-south line running through the heart of China town. It operates in the center with traffic being one-way in opposite directions on each side. Nothing except traffic prevents a pedestrian from crossing over the tracks anywhere along the line but cars are limited to only certain intersections to cross. It should be noted this is a really wide street — probably at least ninety feet from outside curb to outside curb. We have very few such streets in the City of St. Louis.

Again, most of the streetcars in Toronto run in mixed traffic situations and all must follow the traffic signals. They are not employing any sort of GPS technology to give the streetcars preference when it comes to traffic signals, something that is often done with new in-street systems be they bus rapid transit, streetcars (vintage or modern) or light rail. Still, their signals were always timed nearly perfect. Streets with mixed traffic streetcars may have four total lanes plus on-street parking or be quite narrow with barely room for on-street parking and two traffic lanes.

The streetcars always run in the middle of the street which has a number of pros and cons. On the plus side the streetcar is not switching from inside to outside lanes so drivers and cyclists know what to expect as they drive alongside. The streetcar also does not get stuck behind someone trying to parallel park except on those really narrow streets. The cons are getting to the streetcar. In most places you wait at the curb until the streetcar arrives and then you walk out to meet it. In cases where you are crossing a traffic lane the traffic is required to stop behind the line of the streetcar while the doors are open. And amazingly enough, they do (including cyclists). The big issue is accessibility, or more precisely the lack of it. If you are in a wheelchair you’ll need to call a different service to get you around town. Even those with mobility issues may have difficulty walking out to the street and then up multiple steps.

The tracks did not seem to present major issues to the thousands of cyclists I saw. Granted, few were riding the real narrow tire road bikes. Most opted for a mountain bike or hybrid with tires more suited for in-town traffic. With the lines all being in the center lanes that means cyclists really need to worry most about the track at intersections. I witnessed a man pushing a woman in a wheelchair at a crosswalk and the tracks were presenting challenges, I’m not sure how a wheelchair bound person would manage on their own. This happened to be a situation where two lines crossed and you had the lines plus all the curved tracks as well so I think just crossing regular tracks might not be too objectionable.

IMG_2992.jpgTwo things I like about streetcars over buses are the tracks and the overhead wires. I’m not sure which is better though. The overhead wires create this beautiful tapestry of lines and voids. In Seattle and a few other cities they have electric trolley buses. These look pretty much like conventional buses that we have in St. Louis but operate from overhead electric lines (see wiki). I’ve seen the Seattle bus operator come from the suburbs where they run on diesel or CNG and as they approach the city they stop, get out, and connect to the overhead wires. This small thing, overhead power, sends a couple of messages to the public. First, we care about the environment so we are not going to spew fumes in an urban area. Second, we’ve made a capital investment in this route so we are not going anywhere soon. And last this is an advanced technology over a standard bus — something that can help attract transit choice riders. St. Louis needs to give serious consideration to switching to this type of system for bus routes in the city and older suburbs.

To many people the overhead wires are visual clutter. They want streets free of wires, lines, advertising and ultimately — people. The overhead lines in Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland and Memphis do not detract from those cities in the least. All are well integrated into poles for streetlamps and are a good fit. This is quite different than a mess of wires power lines, phone & cable running along a single side of many of our older ring suburban streets.

IMG_1991.jpgToronto’s subway two subway lines are heavy rail rather than light rail. That is, they are trains. The platform lengths and trains are very long like you’d see in NYC, Boston or Philly. In hindsight we should have opted for longer platforms/vehicles for our MetroLink but at the time nobody knew if it would get used as well as it has been.

The platforms all include a “designated waiting area” or DWA. This area features additional lighting as well as an emergency call button. I never felt unsafe but there were times I was so tired from walking that I took advantage of the bench while waiting for a train to arrive. The sheer number of people they can move is impressive and they frequency is high.

The Toronto Transit Commission is in the process of making their stations accessible to those in wheelchairs, something not considered when most were built. They are also replacing their trains with all new trains starting in 2009.

IMG_3238.jpgI took the Yonge subway out to nearly the end of the line, the North York station. At that station was a reasonably typical shopping mall with one big exception — a massive chain grocery store at the subway level (one below the sidewalk level). The Loblaws store was the centerpiece of the mall as you enter from the street. From the subway line you can walk virtually into the grocery store. As the North York area seemed most like a suburban office area (think Clayton but if located as far away as Chesterfield). Still, I can see people getting their groceries just before getting on the subway to return to their homes or after arriving back from where ever they had been. Very smart.

IMG_3379.jpgThis brings us up to their light rail system. This is located in the far eastern area of the region at the end of the Danforth subway line. When you arrive at this subway station you leave the system and go up a level to the street where it serves as a bus terminal. Head up another level, and swiping your transit pass again, you get to the light rail platform. For those that live on the end of the light rail line they must do this switch everyday even though the lines are on the same trajectory. Why? Politics. In the 70s and 80s light rail was all the rage and the Ontario government was getting into the business of building transit vehicles. What better way to show off what you can do then to built a system in your own capital city? Extending the existing heavy rail trains at grade or even elevated would have made much more sense than creating a short section of light rail but we all know how short-sided political interests can outweigh wise planning.

Transit rides (streetcar, bus, subway, light rail) are all $2.75 CAN with transfers from one type to another. I opted for the weekly transit pass and I saw many on the streetcars with monthly passes. In short I think the grid-like routes offers Toronto citizens & tourists a great transit system with multiple choices. St. Louis’ system is not quickly understood and our long bus headways make most bus routes only for those who are transit dependent. Additional photos of Toronto’s system on Flickr.

We need to do a rethink because we can and should do better.

– Steve