Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sweden's Newest Rail Transport Revolution

From its inception, Sweden's railroad system defied trends. Construction began on this vast nation’s first rail line in the 1850's and from the outset an coordinated decision was made to keep major lines inland, avoiding the coasts as a defensive measure to protect rail lines from the threat of military attacks. This decision also kept the railroads out of direct competition with established steam boat routes along the coast. As a result, the inland rail lines flourished and paved the way for what is now the 20th largest railroad network in the world, providing nearly full geographic coverage to an area of roughly 175,000 square miles, or slightly larger than California.

For decades to follow, Sweden allowed private companies to build additional rail lines in order to maintain a competitive rail industry. Until the era of the Great Depression, the rails were still owned in part by private parties. As was true in much of the world, with the rise of the automobile came the decline in passenger rail transportation, though Sweden remained proactive about maintaining and expanding their rail system. In the 1980's Sweden instituted controversial changes to managing its railways by separating train operations from rail infrastructure management. Coupled with the introduction of high speed trains in the 1990's, a streamlined ticketing system, and the much-publicized introduction of biofuel engines; the Swedish rail system continued to sustain itself as a viable mode of transportation into the 21st century.

As of early 2010, Sweden is yet again revolutionizing organization of its transport systems. One of the system's early founders, former Director-General of Swedish State Railways Bengt Furback, always held a strong belief that the government should treat road and rail equally. In turn, the government created a national rail authority and national roads administration. But now, the powers that be in Sweden no longer see the benefit of separate agencies. As of April 1st, 2010, authorities have combined these two authorities into a new agency, the Trafikverket, and added to its purvue the oversight all sea ports and airports. The planning and management of virtually all modes of transportation in Sweden have effectively been merged into one agency.

Opponents of the reorganization remain staunch advocates for the traditional vertical integration of rail systems, but the Swedish government believes the move will better prioritize allocation of money across all transit modes. Considering the vast technical disparities between these four major modes of transportation and variations in traffic control and management, oversight of the Trafikverket seems a daunting task from a practical standpoint. If Sweden overcomes the challenges at hand and succeeds in their transportation experiment, it will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit.

Particularly in America, which is in the throes of rethinking its own national rail strategy, it would be interesting to try and glean something from the experiences of other nations who have “been there”, even if the realities of politics and economics differ tremendously between the two countries. As always, your thoughts and further comments are appreciated.

[Photo of Oresund Road/Rail Bridge/Tunnel connecting Sweden with Denmark courtesy of]

Friday, May 14, 2010

Placemaking for Greater Prosperity

The term placemaking came into vogue just a few decades ago, but the concept of designing spaces that attract people has been around for centuries.  Designing with placemaking in mind involves a paradigm shift in the way we typically view urban planning.  Instead of giving prominence to vehicles and buildings, a designer must focus on people and the way they experience spaces.  The goals of placemaking run in the vein of creating lively and inviting public spaces, spaces that can be and are used by residents of a neighborhood.  There are a few recurring themes seen in successfully “made”  places, such as easy access by various modes of transportation, a sense of safety and cleanliness, and the ability of said place to host a variety of experiences and activities.

Benefits to the neighborhood are clear; placemaking provides spaces for interactions between citizens, builds a sense of community, etc.  But how does designing with people in mind benefit the community at large?  And does placemaking have any correlation with economic prosperity?  Neighborhoods designed with placemaking in mind are typically walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.  Residents in these communities statistically have lower automobile costs, produce fewer carbon emissions and realize increased home values compared to communities that lack a sense of place.  Following hand in hand with lower private vehicle use is a lower demand on infrastructure.  Compact development pays.  An EPA study found that compact infrastructure could be 47% less expensive than conventional suburban development.

Residents living in neighborhoods designed with an orientation towards people versus cars, typically have higher levels of physical fitness.  Again this may seem like it's benefiting the individual, not the greater good, but keep in mind that in 2008 the medical cost to treat obesity in the US was $147 billion.  And let’s not overlook the reduction in carbon emissions mentioned above.  Environmental concerns aside, less pollution equates to cleaner air and lower incidences of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

It's also been shown that walkable neighborhoods have lower crime rates.  Jane Jacobs, a community activist and early proponent of placemaking strategies, argued that streets are safer when more people are on them.  Her ‘eyes on the street’ theory contended that well-used public places and buildings that provide inhabitants views to the streets create inherently safer neighborhoods.And she was right; neighborhood watch programs across the country now use the same techniques she advocated.

Placemaking aims to provide a common meeting space and bolster the sense of community in a place.  These shared public spaces can offer venues for markets and cultural festivals or provide a performance area for bands or theater groups.  Communities can begin to see direct economic benefits when the value of their space is recognized and realized.

It's difficult to quantify all the benefits of placemaking, but with movements like Placemaking Chicago and the New York City Plaza Program growing in prominence, these benefits are hard to deny.

[Photo of Lincoln Square Arch in Chicago courtesy of Placemaking Chicago]

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Obama Infrastructure Plan, Year 2

On February 17th, 2009, President Obama countered the recession with his own economic stimulus plan: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Proponents of public transportation heralded the effort, which allocated over $48 billion of the $787 billion economic stimulus package towards infrastructure improvements.  These investments into our nation's infrastructure focused on of a range of transportation initiatives including highway, rail, air and maritime. When the Act was first unveiled, its primary goals were threefold: to rescue, recover and reinvest. Long term benefits were intended to materialize through improvements in the efficiency of transportation systems across America and increasing our economic viability internationally. More immediate goals of the plan primarily came down to creating jobs. The Obama administration cited the lofty but vague goal of creating ‘millions of jobs’, both direct and indirect. Due to the long-lead nature of construction projects, it was speculated that the bulk of new jobs wouldn't be created until mid-2010. As we're nearing that milestone, it seems an opportune time to reflect on what the large-scale infrastructure plan has and has not accomplished early in its sophomore year.

To start, let's talk money. How much of the money has been awarded? How many projects have received money and commenced construction? Within days of ARRA’s passage, money was being awarded. Within six months $33.2 billion had been awarded to states for proposed projects and of that, $20.6 billion had been committed to specific projects readying them to begin construction. The push to award funds was immense right after ARRA passed, then slowed appreciably in following months. As of April 30th, 2010, just over $39 billion had been awarded. Of that, less than one-third of funds, or $10.9 billion, has been received by states to begin projects. This equates to just over one-fifth of the total stimulus money allocated for infrastructure improvements currently being used to fund actual projects. While a $10.9 billion is a large injection into our nation's neglected infrastructure, the task at hand remains large. Let's hope that projects gain approval and funding is doled out with renewed ferocity in this second year.

Let's address the major short-term goal of the infrastructure plan, job creation. The Obama administration attempted complete transparency in job reporting, which proved to be a difficult task. Early reports in 2009 claimed that over one million jobs had been created within months of the act being passed. In fact the White House claimed that public and private forecasters estimated the Recovery Act was 'responsible' for 2 million jobs in its first year. The administration later admitted challenges in quantifying the number of jobs 'saved or created' by the Recovery Act and changed their terminology altogether to 'jobs funded by the recovery act'. Early numbers were revised and it was determined that from February 17th to September 30th, 2009, 633,376 jobs were funded by the Recovery Act. From last October 1st through the end of 2009, 608,311 jobs were funded by the Recovery Act and in the first quarter of 2010, 682,779 jobs were funded by the Recovery Act. While the numbers aren't as astonishing as what was first reported, the increase in job creation in 2010 is a reassuring trend. Could this be a leading indicator, demonstrating that we're on the verge of seeing the funded infrastructure projects go into full swing?

What are your thoughts?

Monday, May 3, 2010

­Trail Planning for Active Rail Corridors

In the 1960's and 70's, the consolidation of our nation's railroads resulted in abandonment of miles upon miles unused rail lines. City governments were drawn to the appeal of these corridors, as they connected cities and often ran through areas of historic or scenic value. Some prime corridors were transformed into greenspaces and recreational corridors for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding. The trend gained steam and before long trails were being considered for active rail corridors as well. With the current movement to rejuvenate rail corridors nationwide, it seems an incredibly opportune time to take stock of our existing infrastructure and realize the benefits of rails-with-trails.

Converting an inactive rail corridor to a trail (rail-to-trail) is relatively straightforward, but establishing a trail within the easement of an active rail corridor requires more strategizing. For starters, why would a private railroad agree to a trail within their right-of-way? As the railroads are coming to realize, rails-with-trails aren't one-sided endeavors; they offer advantages to the railroad owners as well. With a trail often comes substantial benefit to the railroad, including beautification of the rail corridor and improvement of the railroad’s image in the eyes of the public (through appropriate community outreach). Public agency trail managers might attempt to acquire the easement from the railroad, in some instances reducing the liability of the railroad. Whether the area is patrolled or not, when people actively use a rail corridor trespassing and vandalism rates typically decrease. In the case of rail transit corridors, projects such as the Folsom Parkway Rail-Trail, have produced an increase in transit ridership by thoughtful integration between the two facilities.

Most railroad companies are in favor of rails with trails; according to a survey performed by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, less than 10% of railroad companies initially opposed the idea. In those cases where the trail was opposed, the railroad cited concerns over safety and liability. For obvious reasons, building a trail within an active rail corridor can carry a heightened level of concern for safety, but careful planning can assuage potential problems. Statistically speaking, using a trail in an active rail corridor is far safer than bicycling or walking along a busy city street. In the 34 year history of the program, there has only been one incident. And in this particular incident a biker ignored warnings signals, rode around a lowered gate and was injured by an oncoming train. (See the groundbreaking Rails to Trails Conservancy Study, Rails With Trails for one of the first extensive research efforts on this topic.)

Setbacks and appropriate separation from rail lines is a key factor in designing safe trails. Per “Rails With Trails”, trails are on average 10 to 11 feet wide with the average separation between track and trail being 33 feet. Many trails provide a barrier between the rail tracks and trail, particularly when the two facilities are close together or when railroad speeds are high. These barriers can be anything from heavy duty cast in place concrete walls or a grade separation to a ditch, fence or even just vegetation, depending on actual and perceived risk to trail users and the railroad.  Along the Folsom Park Trail, when railroad easements didn't accommodate adequate separation between train and pedestrian, the design team chose to raise the trail almost 3 feet above the train tracks and provide a retaining wall with metal fence to ensure user safety.

Areas of intersection, where the rail and trail cross paths are critical points to introduce enhanced safety measures. When possible avoid at-grade crossings and attempt to introduce tunnels or overpasses. Standard signage that is universally understood should be used in conjunction with audible and visual signals to warn pedestrians and bicyclists at all crossings. Boston's Southwest Corridor Park spent almost $27 million on a trail that goes to great lengths to avoid at-grade crossings. The 4.7 mile trail includes 17 crossings that redirect pedestrian traffic via tunnels or bridges. On the Heritage Rail Trail County Park in Pennsylvania, the existing rail line passes through a narrow tunnel. To design around tight clearances (at some points within the 250 foot long tunnel the trail was within 6 feet of existing railroad tracks) the lease granted to the railroad by the county gives priority to bicyclists, requiring all trains to stop before entering the tunnel and wait until it is clear. Of course this only works with excursion railroads and not with scheduled or headways-based transit service.

The Federal Highway Administration has additional guidelines for designing trails in active rail corridors. FHWA advises against calling the trail 'safe' and suggests trail managers warn users to be vigilant as trains continue to use the corridor. Material selection and crossing surfaces should be selected to provide traction for runners and bicyclists and adequate illumination should be provided. The FHWA also emphasizes the importance of implementing a maintenance schedule to ensure the condition of the trail is routinely monitored, any hazards are fixed, and the trail is kept generally free of debris. As with any infrastructure project, thoughtful planning and continued maintenance will aid in creating a vibrant corridor for years to come.