Monday, January 20, 2014

Not all in-street Light Rail is created equal

In-street light rail was first constructed in Buffalo, NY, Baltimore, and Long Beach, CA.  In each case the end-product was clumsy and none of those projects have motivated much development.

But light rail technology -- both the trains themselves and the tracks they run on -- has evolved profoundly in the past 30 years.  About a dozen new lines are under construction right now in as many cities around the United States, but their design strategies vary wildly from one to the next.  

Some cities have built hardly any in-street track whereas others are building in-street track on a large scale, with few examples of grade separation.  The greatest example of the slower, lower-cost strategy is Houston, where the highest per-mile ridership light rail line in the United States opened back in the early 2000s.  Their network is now expanding in several directions from downtown, but unfortunately the new streetscapes that are being created are quite unattractive:

Meanwhile Seattle's first light rail line, opened 2009, travels to SeaTac Airport in the median of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.  Starting in the second minute, you will see the far more attractive track work (note the tinted concrete), overhead wire, station design, and general streetscape that characterizes this project:

Design matters, people!  Talk of expanding our new streetcar system will be accompanied by demands to expand outside city limits and onto big suburban avenues.  Seattle has proven that construction of a light rail line in the center of a radial avenue can add significant value to a formerly sleepy part of town.  Houston's example, unfortunately, illustrates what happens when something is done as cheaply as possible.