DIY planning for light rail!


LRT car clearances profile (excerpted from presentation).

LRT car clearances profile (excerpted from presentation).


Interested in designing a conceptual light rail transit (LRT) line for your own community? If you’ve been wishing you had something like a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) planning manual or set of basic guidelines for doing that, a report presented to the 13th National Light Rail & Streetcar Conference (co-sponsored by Transportation Research Board and American Public Transportation Association, and held last month in Minneapolis, Minnesota) may be just what you need.

Titled «Developing Infrastructure-Relevant Guidelines for Preliminary Conceptual Planning of a New Light Rail Transit System», the report has been prepared by Urban Rail Today principal Lyndon Henry (also a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a Railway Age online writer). As the abstract indicates, the report represents a step toward publishing “readily accessible guidelines to provide a resource for developing conceptual design and evaluation plans, particularly involving infrastructure and fleet requirements, for new light rail transit (LRT) systems in their communities.”

Links to the original paper and PowerPoint presentation are available (both as PDFs). ■

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How Portland’s light rail trains and buses share a transit mall


LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

LRT train on Portland’s 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

♦ How can both buses and light rail transit (LRT) trains share the same transit-priority paveway or street? There are numerous examples that answer this, but certainly one of the best is in Portland, Oregon — the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls.
Recently, the Austin Rail Now (ARN) blog posted an article focusing on Portland’s transit malls, and because of the more general usefulness of this information for many more communities, we’re re-posting it here with the kind permission of ARN. (It’s also been re-posted by the Light Rail Now blog.)
The opening context for the article is the urban rail planning project currently under way by the City of Austin, Capital Metro (the transit authority), and a transit planning consortium called Project Connect. Transit priority lanes are now being installed on two major downtown north-south streets, and it’s been expected that urban rail trains would share these with buses, including the MetroRapid premium-bus services now being implemented in several major city corridors. However, some transit advocates are noting that these lanes may have insufficient capacity to handle all the bus routes plus MetroRapid, much less adding LRT into the mix.
Portland’s experience thus provides an illustration of how LRT trains and buses can share a priority alignment in a way that works well.

Capital Metro and the City of Austin have a project under way to designate “Transit Priority Lanes” on Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets downtown between Cesar Chavez St. and MLK Jr. Blvd. It’s mainly to expedite operation of the planned new MetroRapid bus services (Routes 801 and 803), but virtually all bus routes running through downtown will also be shifted to these lanes, located on the far-righthand side of traffic on each street (i.e., the righthand curbside lanes).

According to a 2011 study funded by the City of Austin, the Official (City + Project Connect) Urban Rail route is also envisioned to use these lanes downtown. Alternatives to the Official plan have also assumed that these routes would be available for alternative urban rail lines serving the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

However, there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Experience with both light rail transit (LRT) trains and buses sharing the same running way is rare in the USA, but one of the best examples can be seen in Portland, Oregon. For years, 5th and 6th Avenues through the downtown have been used by multiple bus routes as a transit mall, with a single lane provided for general motor vehicle access. In September 2009 LRT was added with the opening of the new Green Line; see: Portland: New Green Line Light Rail Extension Opens.

The integration of LRT with bus service in the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls has worked well. Here’s a brief photo-summary illustrating some of the configurational and operational details.

• Buses and LRT trains share transitway

This illustrates how both bus services and LRT trains share the mall. Tracks, embedded in the pavement, weave from curbside to the second lane over. A third lane is kept open for mixed motor vehicle traffic.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT routes cross

This photo shows how the Green and Yellow LRT lines on the 5th Ave. transit mall cross the Red and Blue LRT lines running on 5th St. You’re looking north on 5th Ave., and just across the tracks in the foreground, the LRT tracks on 5th Ave. weave from the middle of the street over to the curbside, where a station-stop is located. This allows LRT trains to access stations but otherwise pass buses stopped at bus stops on the same street.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

• LRT train leaving station

Here an LRT train has just left the curbside station, following the tracks into the middle lane of the street. This track configuration allows the train to pass a bus boarding passengers at a stop.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT train passing bus

Another train moves to the street center lane and passes the bus stop. Meanwhile, other buses queue up at the street behind.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• Bus bunching

Buses are prone to “bus bunching” (queuing) in high-volume situations because of their smaller capacity, slower operation, slower passenger boarding/deboarding, difficulty adhering to schedule, etc. However, notice how they’re channeled to queue up in a lane off the LRT track.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Can and will Austin and Project Connect planners learn anything about how to create workable Transit Priority Lanes from examples like this? Time will tell…

Getting the streetcar route right in Cincinnati


Another simulation view of the CAF streetcar on order for Cincinnati. Graphic: CincyStreetcar blog.

Another simulation view of the CAF streetcar on order for Cincinnati. Graphic: CincyStreetcar blog .

by John Schneider

An early turning point — there have been many of them — in the long-running effort to build the Cincinnati Streetcar occurred in one of the meetings that evaluated five potential routes. The early consensus favored a straight route on one-way parallel streets anchored by Cincinnati’s convention center, which has been expanded twice in the past thirty years.

Then something remarkable happened. The CEO of Cincinnati’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau stood up and said, “Look, don’t build this for tourists — they are looking for things to do and they will find the streetcar wherever it is. Let’s build this for Cincinnatians.”

So an alternative quickly rose to the top — a diagonal alignment from southeast to northwest across the basin of downtown Cincinnati that puts just about every major destination within a couple of blocks of the line.

What proved to be key is the connection between employment and housing. While Cincinnati is a small city, it is home to a surprising number of large corporations, including Procter & Gamble, Macy’s, and the Kroger Company. There are seven Fortune 500 companies within a couple blocks of the streetcar line.

Most of these companies, their law and accounting firms and other support services are clustered a few blocks north of the Ohio River. Our region’s bus system is concentrated at the center of this agglomeration, and about 20% of downtown workers commute by bus. The streetcar line would end up flowing through the middle of this too.

At the other end of the line is Over-the-Rhine, so-named by German immigrants who compared the river they knew in their homeland to an early Cincinnati canal bordering OTR. Crossing the canal and going downtown was like “going over the Rhine.” And the name stuck.

Once home to perhaps 35,000 residents, OTR’s population dropped to around 5,000 or so in the 1990’s. Mostly vacant but blessed with beautifull (and mostly intact) Italianate townhouses, the neighborhood had been experiencing a slow comeback for several decades but was losing the battle to the elements and parking lots.

It was an obvious match: downtown workers are the best prospects to repopulate a neighborhood near lots of jobs but not really close enough to be walkable by everyone in all weather and at all times of the day. The streetcar solves that problem.

So the route will traverse the one-way couplet of Main and Walnut in the CBD, cross east/west at its midpoint to travel on another couplet, Elm and Race, which bracket Findlay Market, one of the oldest continuously operating public markets in the country. And perhaps the most authentic and diverse place in all of Cincinnati.

What else is along the Cincinnati Streetcar route? Plenty.

Fountain Square is the symbolic heart of our city and a focus of major investment. When the Reds win the World Series again, thousands of Cincinnatians will gather on the Square to celebrate. No one will require an invitation. It will just happen. The streetcar travels along the edge of the Square.

Speaking of the Reds, the Great American Ball Park is located near Stop #1 for the Cincinnati Streetcar. And Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, is four blocks away. These facilities are co-located in a huge Ohio River redevelopment project now known as The Banks, a billion dollars of new housing, restaurants, hotel and office space.

For 222 years, Cincinnati didn’t have a flood-proof riverfront, the Ohio River having a nasty habit of fluctuating wildly depending on upstream rainfall. As a result, not much could ever happen there. Now it will, because the parking for the teams — eventually to become one of the largest underground parking garages in North America — provides an invisible, floodable pllatform for the development above. The center of The Banks is about four blocks from Fountain Square with an uphill walk, so the streetcar will help bridge the distance and make commercial and hotel development there more promising.

There are other important destinations along the route of the Cincinnati Streetcar:

• Two-thirds of all the major cultural attractions in the Cincinnati region.
• Two new parks, one on the riverfront, the other in Over-the-Rhine.
• Cincinnati’s main library, now the busiest library building in the United States. There is also a historic private library on the line — one of its founders, a U.S. president.
• A new $72-million-dollar K-12 School for the Creative and Performing Arts, the first of its kind in the nation, which was originally established a half-mile away.
• Several new hotels and more in planning plus three large apartment buildings.
• Many bars and restaurants all along the line and more on the way. Cincinnati is getting to be a foodie town.

While the streetcar is mostly associated with Over-the-Rhine, economists estimate that the greatest real estate gains will occur in the north frame of the CBD. Over-the-Rhine is intimate and charming, and that’s why it is cherished by Cincinnatians. But most of the large parcels of land and buildings suitable for re-use as housing are in the “Empty Quarter” of the CBD between Fountain Square and OTR. Except for the Aronoff Center for the Arts, very little happens there nights and weekends. The streetcar will give this area new life.

City officials plan to extend the streetcar up the hill to Uptown area, to the University of Cincinnati with its 42,000 students and to the several hospitals near it. Downtown Cincinnati is the largest employment center in this 2.1-million-person region. Uptown Cincinnati is second.

A long-awaited sight: streetcar construction on Cincinnati's Elm Street. Photo: Travis Estell.

A long-awaited sight: streetcar construction on Cincinnati’s Elm Street. Photo: Travis Estell.

The key takeaway from Cincinnati is diversity of uses — connecting the two largest employment centers in the region with underpopulated historic districts between them, a large and growing public market, plus parks, schools, libraries, hotels and restaurants. When you put it all together, you have the likelihood of the streetcar’s near round-the-clock use almost every day of the week.

The Over-the-Rhine loop of the Cincinnati Streetcar will open for testing in mid-2015, the CBD loop about a year later.

Great things are happening in Cincinnati. Plan to visit soon.