Monday, September 28, 2009

Speeding up the light rail?

Today's Mercury article outlined some strategies under consideration by VTA that would speed up the light rail, which involve running express trains south of downtown San Jose, grade separation at Montague Expressway on 1st Street, double tracking of 1st Street through downtown San Jose (which would somehow increase speed from 10 to 20 mph), and extension from to San Jose State.

While Gary Richards correctly notes that the VTA light rail system is less productive compared to cities such as Portland and Sacramento, it is not certain that whether these improvements would yield significant reduction in travel time.

Some online Mercury readers blamed VTA for not putting the light rail underground, similar to Muni in San Francisco. However, that's not the problem here. Although light rail could operate faster underground, the current light rail alignment serve Downtown San Jose relatively well. If you look at cities like Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego, you will find that light rail in those cities also operate at grade. Part of the reason light rail was chosen is that it blends well with the pedestrian environment and without forcing passengers to walk up and down or use escalators. If downtown is supposed to be a major destination, convenient access by light rail at grade would be an asset.

However, Downtown San Jose does not have the employment concentration as in Downtown Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego. Unlike other cities, VTA's light rail trains run up and down 1st Street and along Tasman Drive to serve low density office parks, where workers have an abundance of free parking.

Some blamed VTA for not building the light rail system to the San Jose Airport, which is obviously unfortunate. Portland already runs its light rail to the Portland airport and Sacramento is planning a light rail extension to its airport. VTA's light rail is not that far away from the San Jose Airport (a little over 1/2 mile as the crow flies). However, instead of a light rail spur from First Street, or a new parallel alignment along Highway 87, the best the City and VTA could come up with is a "Peoplemover" that would not connect with High Speed Rail and neither intends to actually fund.

Regardless of which option VTA prefers, a question remains how these upgrades be funded. Most of those proposals are not included in the 2000 Measure A, which VTA has decided to unquestionably follow despite the fact that it was poorly conceived. The present financial situation is also putting more pressure on VTA. VTA is now conducting EIS study (the federal environmental document) for the Eastridge light rail extension, which for many years, VTA has planned to fund the project entirely with state and local funds. The lack of federal clearance for that project made it ineligible for the Stimulus funds, which otherwise would be very competitive considering the project was nearly shovel-ready.

At the end, VTA's poor light rail performance is a result of poor urban planning, development greed, and the continual neglect of transit riders' needs. Unfortunately, these attitude still exists at the agency and most voters and environmentalists are not aware of that. If the light rail couldn't turn around Downtown San Jose and make the system more viable, building another rail system (like BART) in Downtown San Jose most likely won't help turn it around either (look at Downtown Oakland).

Of course, VTA does not have money for a subway in downtown. However, a BART line that it could fund (to Berryessa) won't bring commuters directly to where the jobs are. Rather, VTA expects commuters to transfer to light rail in Milpitas. Don't be surprise if the BART project turns out to be a massive failure too.


arcady said...

I think the fundamental problem with light rail is that many of the potentially useful trips are not to downtown but through it, and the current sidewalk alignment severely restricts the usefulness of that because trains have to go 10 mph. Double tracking on 1st Street would presumably put the trains not on the sidewalk, thus allowing faster speeds (20 or maybe even the full 30), plus it would eliminate two sharp turns and a crossing.

The even more fundamental problem, though, is that street-based light rail is not really a complete solution for Santa Clara County. It's roughly the equivalent of surface streets, and roughly competitive with driving on surface streets too, but cars also get the benefit of freeways, while there is little in the way of transit that can be considered equivalent, and the two main rapid systems (Caltrain and light rail south of Downtown) don't really connect well, plus Caltrain doesn't really run frequently enough either.

What would I propose as a solution? Invest in Caltrain. Improve the connection at Tamien, make it as easy as possible to make through trips between Caltrain and the fast bits of light rail. Start up commuter service on the UP line that goes from San Jose to Fremont via Milpitas. And keep building light rail where it makes sense: downtown to Alum Rock and Eastridge, Winchester to Vasona Junction, and maybe in the long term some kind of north-south line in the west, and a line along the foothill branch railroad from Vasona Junction to Palo Alto. And forget about BART: you just don't need a grade separated rapid transit line to run trains every 20 minutes.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, I think there is plenty of business downtown that would benefit from a faster light rail-SJSU, Federal and state courts, city government, Adobe, etc.
Its just that, unless you live near the Winchester or Santa Teresa line south of downtown, it is an extremely slow method of actually getting to work.

I can think of some stations like Virginia and Branham that probably shouldn't exist, (possibly also Blossom Hill), but I generally thought that taking light rail from south San Jose to downtown wasn't that bad.

I'd have grade separated 1st street or elevated it-its not as if many people live there who are going to be concerned about blight. Its too damn slow from Santa Clara to Tasman. Then, once light rail turns on Tasman to Mt. View, there are too many stops, plus the route from Tasman-Mt. View is very convoluted and hardly the shortest possible route.

What makes Santa Teresa-downtown SJC and Campbell to downtown SJC work so well is that light rail isnt competing with traffic-no pesky right of way issues coming up from Campbell, and using highway medians makes the Santa Teresa line a fast jaunt to downtown. I don't see how running light rail on surface streets and competing with traffic is going to help.

Ultimately, the solution must be to avoid competition with traffic-using highway medians, elevated sections, etc. Most people in Santa Clara County rely on autos, and its not asking too much for people to use suburban park and rides to access light rail through highway median stations. Take a cue from Portland-MAX light rail doesn't run in streetcar mode on the West Side to downtown Portland, and plenty of people drop their cars off at suburban park and rides.

Anonymous said...

I love to use light rail, except to get to work from south of downtown to north of downtown. I still use LR for my commute 2-3 times per week, but the general public won't consider a 40+ minute train ride an alternative to a 20 minute car trip.

a north-south in the west would be good also, maybe in the median of lawrence expy.Another good addition would be an east-west in the median of central expy that will run to the airport terminals then to diridon. This would take advantage of the speedy median install like amandainsjc mentions while also giving a direct LR line to the airport terminal from the west and diridon and all train lines that go through diridon (caltrain, amtrak, other LR lines).

I don't think BART to SJ is a good idea the way they want it. I agree that money would be better spent to run caltrain on the UP tracks. Amtrak already runs on the tracks, but Amtrak sucks for commuting or getting anywhere on-time. Putting caltrain in the east bay would also help east bay residents get to concerts and sporting events at HP Pavilion easier. Also, don't forget about the city's dream of an MLB team in downtown.

Somebody else can do the math, but caltrain on existing tracks must be much cheaper and quicker to open than building brand new BART to SJ.

accountablevta said...

Downtown San Jose is the major problem why the light rail doesn't work. Unlike Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego, the employment core is much weaker in San Jose and there's no major shopping center. Of course, Downtown San Jose is what it is now because of poor planning. No amount of new rail will solve that problem. Downtown Oakland has BART for more than 30 years and most riders pass through Oakland underground than to get off there.

Drivers can bypass Downtown San Jose from the south to the north on the freeway at high speed. Light rail riders instead have to slowly pass through downtown. If the major goal is to transport commuters from suburb to suburb, then clearly the light rail as it is not up to task. In Los Angeles, the Green line totally operates on the freeway median and is primarily designed for suburb to suburb commute (although not going to the nearby LAX).

If Downtown were to be a major destination, it does get utilized. San Jose State is one of the top destinations. Paseo de San Antonio station (closest to SJSU) even has higher ridership than Santa Clara.

arcady said...

The surface running light rail actually doesn't do too badly sometimes, at least compared to surface street speeds. On North 1st, the average speed is in the 18-20 mph range, and Tasman-Alum Rock is just above 20 mph as well, which I'd say is time-competitive with driving on surface streets. Unfortunately, it's not really time competitive with freeways over long distances, and the segment through downtown in particular is really bad for that. Which is why the light rail would make sense as an adjunct to a proper regional rail system, because neither can effectively serve the area by itself.

And I think the important lesson to be learned from LA is that bus ridership is in fact a very good predictor of eventual rail ridership, and that connections do matter. The Orange Line (busway) feeds the majority of its ridership into the Red Line subway, and the Green Line is only made useful by the fact that it connects to the Blue, and I strongly suspect that the majority of Green Line riders are in fact going to or from somewhere along the Blue Line. Street running, as long as it's relatively fast, isn't a major deterrent: the Blue Line has a 2.5 mile section of street running on the approach to Downtown, but the trains move along at a fairly good pace, and the Blue Line is one of the busiest light rail lines in the country.

CK said...

Yea, they've just finished that Light Rail COA study. One may wonder that they finally figure out something wrong with the Light Rail after the Light Rail is in operation for 20 years!?

I agree with most of your comments that Light Rail should have by-pass downtown, and go straight to SJ airport, and then back to first street. It was unfortunate that it was ruled out to continue the light rail on highway 87 median?!

Can we run a separate trolly line like Portland downtown from Virigina station or Children Discovery Museum station to civic center (to connect the "main" light rail line)? From Civic Center station, speed up the light rail.

Let's finish the light rail only up to Eastridge Mall/Transit Center. There's no point to continue light rail on Capitol Expressway, and forming a loop.

Abolish the BART project, construct a short spur light from Great Mall station to Warm Spring BART station. Let's grow our own line, instead of grow the BART line :-)

Yes, I agree with investing the Caltrain as well.


arcady said...

Oh and one more proposal to improve the light rail: remove the delayed-activation feature of the grade crossing signals on the Mountain View branch, or at least either restrict its use to rush hour or put it under operator control. Most of the time, it just means the train has to stop at the red signal even if it's not actually stopping to let anyone on or off at the station, all for the benefit of zero or one cars on streets that are empty, or worse yet, the nonexistent pedestrians at Moffett Park and other such stations. It would save a couple minutes, and more importantly, would make the train feel subjectively faster, since it's going along at a steady rate, rather than making unnecessary stops. They might also want to take a look at speeds along the curves on that line, there might be a few places where they could push the underbalance a bit harder, and save a few seconds here and there, but the seconds do add up.

RAAVAN said...

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