Tag Archives: mass transit

Virginia in No Rush to Address Impending Metro Meltdown

metroby James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration seems to be in no hurry to bail out the ailing Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) commuter rail system crippled by declining ridership and an $18  billion capital spending shorttfall over the next ten years. Bolstering state support for the transit authority, which has been plagued for decades by union featherbedding and short-sighted, politically driven decision-making, would divert billions from other projects around Virginia.

At a recent discussion of Virginia’s rail and transportation budget Tuesday, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said there are no immediate plans to send more money to Metro, although there could be discussions with the General Assembly in the future.

“At some point, based on the estimates that I have seen as to what the capital needs are going to be, there’s obviously going to be that discussion for additional revenues,” Layne said, as quoted by the Washington Post. “That is not contemplated in these budgets.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This discussion is unavoidable, and the sooner it starts, the better. The Washington Metro is mission-critical transportation infrastructure for Northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington region. It cannot be allowed to fail. Failure to address the system’s maintenance needs will result in more accidents, more delays, more malfunctioning escalators and other conditions that drive away ridership, which in turn will cut into operating revenues.

At the same time, Virginia taxpayers are understandably reluctant to pour billions of dollars down a rat-hole, diverting funding from their own much-needed transportation projects, without some assurances that the commuter rail system can be made to run efficiently. Among major concessions that I would push for are higher fares, revisions to union contracts, prioritization of maintenance funding over expansions of the system, and an overhaul of the governance system.

Working out an agreement that satisfies constituencies in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. will be incredibly difficult, given the different ideological and geographic interests involved — not to mention the inevitable turnovers in political leadership. Negotiations could take years. Metro doesn’t have years. Discussions need to start immediately. McAuliffe could show leadership by convening a high-level confab to bring together major stakeholders from across the Washington region and surfacing the major issues that must be resolved.

Pulse Has a Pulse after All

Click for larger image.

Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

When last I blogged about Richmond Pulse, the Bus Rapid Transit plan for the city’s Broad Street corridor, the projected cost had leaped $11.5 million over its original $50 million estimate. While I support mass transit in the right circumstances, I saw little good coming from this project, in which state and federal authorities had helicoptered dollars upon the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) and the city had done little to create the conditions — zoning for appropriate land use, funding streetscaping and planning for intermodal connectivity — needed to make the project a success.

I was worried that I might have offended my old buddies in the local Smart Growth community by my unsparing criticism of the transit project. As it turns out, I need not have worried. They shared the same concerns. Indeed, they have been working feverishly through the planning process to correct the obvious deficiencies.

“Typically plans for transit projects sit on the shelf for years while agencies try to find funding,”  says Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, “but in this case, while some planning certainly had been done, the funding got ahead of the planning.”

The project, which runs 7.6 miles from Rocketts Landing at the east end of the city to the Willow Lawn mall at the west end, is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2017. Planners have moved into high gear trying to catch up. Two important studies should be complete this fall.

The Richmond Regional Transit Vision Plan will create a regional transit vision plan to stakeholders and the public that will guide transit development in the region through 2040. The idea is for Pulse to be part of a more comprehensive regional transit system.

The Broad and East Main Street Corridor Plan will focus on the Pulse corridor, identifying where development should occur, what development should look like and how it should happen.

Meanwhile, the Richmond Transit Network Plan will rethink the design of the city’s bus network in the context of Pulse. For example, will Pulse free up GRTC resources to improve service on other routes? How can regular bus routes interface with Pulse? Can GRTC optimize its bus service in other ways? Jarrett Walker + Associates, renowned for its re-engineering of the Houston bus system, will conduct the study. That should be complete next year.

As a bonus, the U.S Department of Transportation is providing technical assistance in the Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot Initiative to promote Transit-Oriented Development in the low-income Fulton community, whose residents are expected to use the BRT to reach jobs in the West End.

While implementation of the Pulse project has not exactly risen to a top-of-mind issue in Richmond’s highly competitive mayoral race, “there is a mobilized civic community,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Civic leaders are determined to make sure the project is done right.

The Smart Growth community has a lot riding on this project. If Pulse crashes and burns, it will undermine political support for more mass transit funding in the Richmond region. Conversely, if the project is successful, it could pave the way for a regional system.

In Metro’s Disruption, a New Opportunity

metroThe good news is that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is making the tough but desperately needed measures to maintain the commuter rail system serving the Washington region. The authority has announced a “massive” maintenance surge to address chronic infrastructure issues that have created safety issues and hindered trains from staying on schedule.

The bad news is that the surge will require closing portions of the system for weeks at a time, requiring thousands of commuters to find other ways to get to work. The inevitable result: more congestion on already-overloaded streets, roads and highways.

Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, is calling upon businesses to prepare for the disruption by creating flexible work schedules, encouraging telework, and promoting van books. Uber will be in heavy demand, he predicts. Parking may be in short supply.

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s my hope: that entrepreneurs take advantage of the opportunity to Uber-ize shared ridership across the full spectrum of price points from luxury rides to Third World-jitney like travel. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

— JAB

Driving Down, Mass Transit Down, Telework Up

telework

Graphic credit: Transportation Planning Board

by James A. Bacon

The trend toward less driving in the Washington metropolitan area has conformed to the devout wishes of greenies and planners alike over the past decade: Average daily vehicle miles driven per capita has declined steadily since 2005 from 25.7 miles to 22.6 miles. (Driving in 2015 showed a 0.1 mile up-tick, not surprising given the plunge in gasoline prices.)

But not because people were shifting to mass transit. Weekday ridership on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) also declined: from 748,000 per day in 2009 to 701,000 in 2015. More people are biking, but the numbers are so small that biking as a transportation mode can’t move the needle. Something else is going on.

The Washington Post‘s Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, thinks that telecommuting might explain the difference. He cites a 2013 State of the Commute study that says more than half of commuters either can or could telework. As it turns out, the percentage of telecommuters is highest among those who also rely on rail transit, as shown in the chart above.

I find that counter intuitive. All other things being equal, I would expect commuters with the longest, most grueling ride to the office would have the greatest incentive to work at home. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why not? Perhaps commuters consider mass transit even more unpleasant or unreliable than spending time behind the wheel — not implausible, given the widely publicized safety, maintenance and reliability issues plaguing WMATA.

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon is worth exploring. We’re spending billions of dollars patching up Northern Virginia’s transportation infrastructure. There’s got to be a better way.

Somehow, This Comes as No Surprise

Photo credit: Richmond.com

Photo credit: Richmond.com

Here’s the latest news about the proposed Richmond Pulse project: The expected cost of the project, which would extend Bus Rapid Transit service along 7.6 miles of Richmond’s Broad Street, has just increased by $11 million.

In other words, the contract to design and build the project came in 32% higher than estimated. “Unfortunately, there are estimates, and then there’s the market,” remarked Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, according to Robert Zullo writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The price does include a $3.5 million bonus for completing the project on time.

It’s not clear where the state will find the extra money. But it’s clear from Zullo’s article that the money will be found, and that the state will cover it. The federal government has promised $25 million, the city $7.6 million and Henrico County $400,000. The total project, which includes the purchase of natural gas-powered buses and the removal of 300 parking spaces, originally had been estimated to cost $50 million.

Bacon’s bottom line: This sort of thing happens with such regularity that it is entirely predictable.

Step 1: Create a low ball estimate for a transportation project.

Step 2: Generate a lot of support based on that low ball estimate, and work the project through the elaborate, years-long approval process, creating enough commitment and buy-in from stakeholders that backing out would seem unthinkable.

Step 3: Put out the project for bids, discover the real price of the project, and fund the inevitable shortfall with money from somewhere.

Step 4: Never, ever admit to taxpayers the way the game works.

I support mass transit (though only under the right conditions, not as a universal proposition) as an integral part of a well-functioning transportation system. I have seen this Lucy-pulling-away-the-football-from-Charlie-Brown scenario play out so many times now that I have no faith whatsoever in official cost estimates. If mass transit advocates want to win the trust of taxpayers and gain broader political support, they need to stop this travesty.

I have reached the point where I assume cost estimates are low, the only question being by how much and whether the underestimate was the result of deliberate subterfuge — nod, nod, wink, wink, Mr. Consultant, give us an estimate we can sell to the public — or just systemic incompetence.

Once upon a time, road-and-highway cost projections were equally unreliable, but the Virginia Department of Transportation has done a better job of delivering projects on budget and on time in recent years. As for ridership and traffic projects, I distrust them all equally, whether for roads or transit. Political elites and business leaders continually lament the sorry state of Virginia’s infrastructure. Maybe they could gain political support for more investment if they did a better job of winning the public’s trust.

— JAB

How Not to Think about Mass Transit

GRTC_Chesterfield

GRTC bus bound for Chesterfield Plaza. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Michael Paul Williams, a feature columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, takes a dim view of a decision by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to discontinue a subsidized bus route between downtown Richmond and Chesterfield Plaza. “Chesterfield, despite its dramatic demographic shifts and an increasing poverty rate, continues to turn a blind eye to residents who don’t own cars due to choice, age, disability or the inability to afford one,” he writes in his column today.

He indicts Chesterfield’s decision without ever revealing (a) how much it costs to maintain the service, (b) how many passengers used the service, or (c) how much the subsidies amount to per passenger, much less asking (d) how such a sum might be spent more beneficially in other ways.

The prospect of such reasoning taking hold in the Richmond region and driving the expenditure of real money should be terrifying in the extreme to anyone who objects to the squandering of tax dollars on symbolic gestures rather than on remedies that actually work. Walk with me through his column and despair.

Williams writes:

The supervisors gutted the budget of the Route 81 Express, creating the ridership decline they used to justify killing it. What exactly did the board expect from a route that offered one round-trip in the morning and a single one-way trip from downtown Richmond to Chesterfield in the afternoon with no stops in between? The board couldn’t have undermined the bus route more effectively if it had let the air out of the tires.

He has a point. Sort of. True, the route structure was idiotic. From Williams’s account, it sounds like the Chesterfield supervisors were trying to provide mass transit on the cheap and the route was doomed to fail. The obvious solution, however, is to pull the plug on the project before wasting any more money — just what the board did. The alternative is to double up on a bad situation, spending money to beef up the schedule or add interconnecting lines in the hope of creating critical mass. But what would such an arrangement look like, how much money would it cost, and how many people would be likely to ride that route? Just how much money does Williams propose throwing at the problem?He doesn’t say. He just wants more.

Williams brushes close to enlightenment when he quotes Jesse W. Smith, Chesterfield’s transportation director: “The county really doesn’t have the density to support traditional bus service.”

Bingo. The rule of thumb is that people are willing to walk 1/4 mile to avail themselves of mass transit. If 500 people live within a 1/4-mile radius of a bus stop, that represents far fewer potential customers than if, say, 2,500 people live within a 1/4-mile radius.  It also matters how walkable the streetscapes are. Are there sidewalks? If so, are they set away from streets with cars whizzing by at 45 miles per hour? When pedestrians cross the street, do they feel like they’re taking their lives into their hands? Is the walk visually interesting or is the view monotonous and undifferentiated?

Chesterfield is the epitome of the autocentric suburb. Given decades of low-density, hop-scotch, pedestrian-unfriendly development, Chesterfield County has a pattern of land use that is totally hostile to walkability and inappropriate for transit. Trying to implant mass transit in such an environment would be like planing a banana tree in Alaska: It can’t possibly thrive.

Chesterfield fully deserves criticism for its horrendous land use decisions, but that is no reason to compound the error by superimposing an unsuitable mass transit system. If Williams would like to spark a useful discussion, he could start by suggesting which transportation corridors might lend themselves to mixed-use development at higher densities that might one day, given sufficient redevelopment, support a bus line at reasonable cost.

“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” Williams then quotes my old friend Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, as saying. Williams summarizes Schwartz as making a point similar to one that I have often made on this blog:

In today’s competitive marketplace for corporations and employees, the suburban office park model of the late 20th Century is fading fast as companies seek to appeal to a millennial workforce that increasingly eschews the automobile and would rather walk, bike or ride mass transit to work. From Charlotte to Phoenix to Denver to Cleveland, “elected officials and business leaders recognize that transit provides a competitive edge,” Schwartz said.

That’s all very true. But it’s also totally irrelevant to Chesterfield. The transit systems he mentions serve areas that have far more people within walking distance of their bus stops than Chesterfield can ever think to have. Buses and Bus Rapid Transit might make sense in Richmond’s urban core (assuming City Council enacts appropriate zoning and invests in walkable streetscapes) but none at all in Chesterfield.

Williams then quotes former Sen. John Watkins, a Republican who represented Chesterfield County, who “was a lonely voice in the wilderness on the need for mass transit” (and who also was a prime mover behind the Rt. 288 corridor that opened up vast new swaths of the county to autocentric development). When he joined the legislature in the 1980s, Watkins observed, Fairfax County was adamant about not wanting buses, “and how they’re the biggest user of transit dollars in the state.”

Here’s the flaw with that comparison: Fairfax County had a population density of 2,862 inhabitants per square mile in 2014; Chesterfield had a population density of 742. Fairfax had nearly four times the population density! Moreover, there are sections of Fairfax that have far higher density than the average, while population in Chesterfield is smeared uniformly across the landscape. Buses make far more economic sense in Fairfax than Chesterfield.

Yes, Chesterfield has made a mess of itself. Yes, Chesterfield has created a land use pattern that makes life difficult for poor people lacking access to automobiles. But, no, compounding one folly with another is not an answer. Chesterfield needs to develop corridors of high-density, mixed-use development capable of supporting mass transit before adding new bus routes. Only then will the cost-benefit ratios look remotely favorable.

Another Reminder of the Impending WMATA Disaster

Photo credit: Washingtonian Magazine

Photo credit: Washingtonian Magazine

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is a slow-motion train wreck unfolding before our very eyes. An article  in the December 2015 issue of Washingtonian Magazine, The Infuriating History of How Metro Got So Bad,” provides a timely reminder of just how dysfunctional the commuter rail system has become. One glaring example:

The [Rail-Operations Control Center] was sorely understaffed—according to the FTA, of 52 controller positions this past spring, 18, or about a third, were unfilled. Because of the shortage, controllers could significantly augment their salaries with overtime; the FTA found that some worked 12-hour shifts as many as seven days a week. “You’d have people in there making almost double their salary in overtime,” [former control center trainee Ray] Scarbrough says. According to the trainees, the parking lot reserved for ROCC staff was filled with Mercedes and BMWs. “It looks like a CEO’s parking lot,” [former trainee Kenneth] Colvin says.

That’s what you get when you combine a strong union and weak management, and it goes a long way to explaining why workforce accounts for nearly 75% of WMATA’s 2015 operating budget. But labor unions aren’t the metro’s only problem. So are unrealistic demands for improved service pushed by WMATA board members. According to the article:

Board reps began to press for longer service hours—another way to score points with constituents. In 2003, Metrorail pushed back its closing hours to 12 am on weeknights and 3 am on Fridays and Saturdays. That was good news for riders, businesses, and the environment. But it accelerated the infrastructure’s deterioration. The new schedule left less time when Metro was closed and maintenance crews could access the tracks. On weeknights, “you’re talking about three hours of actual work time,” says Aaron Wiggins, a maintenance manager who retired in August after 27 years. “Ain’t a lot you’re going to get done in three hours on a nightly basis. It’s impossible.”

The scaled-back hours make it all but impossible to perform proper track maintenance. In turn, maintenance backlogs create delays and safety issues, which turns off riders. Even as the region’s population has grown, concerns about Metro’s reliability contributed to a 5% ridership decline between 2010 and 2015.

Yet another problem: Despite the fact that the operation faces a $2 billion funding gap by 2015, two Washington board members have threatened to veto any proposal to increase fares.

Conclude authors Luke Mullins and Michael Gaynor:

After a lifetime of shortsighted decisions, Metro is now trapped in a cycle of dysfunction that threatens its existence. Neglect has led to delays so frustrating that commuters are abandoning the system and therefore putting its main source of revenue at risk. Former GM Richard White predicted as much back in 2004. “We’re talking about a systemic service meltdown condition as early as three years from now,” he warned. “It’s reliability falling, ridership loss, road congestion increasing and air quality decreasing. It’s a death spiral.”

Washington wanted a world-class subway, one accessible late at night and on weekends. But after years of extending service while neglecting repairs, we might now have to live with longer waits. Officials say there simply isn’t enough time in off-hours to handle all the repairs required. The only option, they say, is for crews to do this work during the day. Trains will have to continue single-tracking through work zones. And this won’t be a short-term slowdown. The disruptions are likely to increase in the future, as the region grows and the infrastructure gets even older.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is just one more warning that WMATA is heading for a system crash. Unfortunately, the governance system, which gives representatives from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., effective veto power over necessary but unpopular reforms, may make the transit system unreformable. If WMATA can’t scale back service, can’t raise fares, and can’t tackle labor featherbedding, there’s only one option left: pass around the tin cup. One thing we can count on, WMATA will dun the Commonwealth of Virginia and the municipal jurisdictions it serves for mo’ money.

Virginia can’t let the system fail — the Northern Virginia economy would gridlock without it. But the state can’t continue subsidizing a dysfunctional status quo either. If Virginia taxpayers are going to fork out over the next decade a billion dollars or so in increased financial support — over and above what they’re already paying — they should insist upon real reforms that put WMATA on a path to fiscal sustainability.

(Hat tip: Rob Whitfield)

Richmond Boldly Plotting a Post-19th Century Mass Transit System

The truth comes out: Richmond's bus system still organized around century-old street car routes.

The truth comes out: Richmond’s bus system still organized around century-old street car routes.

by James A. Bacon

The City of Richmond has procured funding for a study to see if GRTC Transit System bus routes can be organized more efficiently, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The study will bring in the Jarrett Walker + Associates consulting firm that showed how rearranging the route structure could triple the frequency of bus service in Houston without requiring additional funding.

“The bus service we’ve been running off of was designed on the basis of the old streetcar lines in Richmond and many of these things have not been looked at since then,” said Ben Campbell, an organizers of the advocacy group TVA Rapid Transit.

At last, a sign that the mass transit in the Richmond region is moving into the 20th century! Given that it’s now the 21st century, we still have a ways to go. But, hey, it’s progress.

One goal of the study will be to adjust routes to connect with the planned bus rapid transit system, the Pulse, that will run along the Broad Street corridor between Rocketts Landing and Willow Lawn. One goal will be to determine where bus stops can be consolidated with Pulse stations to facilitate connections.

Hopefully, Jarrett Walker + Associates will do more than show how to reorganize the bus route structure, as important as that is.  The City of Richmond also needs a long-range plan that encourages higher-density, mixed-use development along Broad Street and provides sustained investment in streetscapes to create an environment inviting to pedestrians walking between transit stops and businesses along the route. Without these fundamental supporting elements, the Pulse is a recipe for losing money.

Outside of downtown, most of the Broad Street corridor consists of low-density, ’50s- and ’60s-era dreck that cries out for redevelopment. Permitting higher densities will give landowners an incentive to invest in their properties; higher densities also will generate more traffic to support the transit service with paying customers. Turning Broad Street from an autocentric wasteland into a corridor where people will actually enjoy walking, shopping, working and even living also will require a sustained commitment of public funds to burnish the public realm. If plans for such rezoning and public improvements exist, however, they haven’t seen the light of day in local media.

My nightmare scenario is that the city is rushing forward with expensive bus rapid transit plans without putting the necessary support elements into place. I am crossing my fingers and hoping that Jarrett Walker + Associates will emphasize the connection between mass transit, land use and walkability — and that City Council will pay attention.

The Slow, Inevitable Demise of Traditional Mass Transit?

WMATA's problem in a nutshell: Expenses, particularly labor expenses, are out of control. Source: WMATA

WMATA’s financial problem in a nutshell: Expenses, particularly labor expenses, are out of control. Source: WMATA

by James A. Bacon

The 2010s were supposed to be the era of mass transit in the Washington metropolitan region. Millenials were jettisoning their automobiles in favor of walking, biking, buses and rail. Localities were zoning for denser development around transit stops and Metro stations. State and federal governments were channeling more money into new rail projects. Real estate developers were plowing billions of dollars into transit-oriented development. But something unexpected happened along the way.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ridership actually declined by 17 million between fiscal 2013 and 2015, to 362 million trips, despite the Silver Line expansion of Metro rail. Given the deteriorating fiscal condition of the rail and bus network, which has a $3 billion capital and operating budget this year, that number does not seem likely to improve. In a system dogged by safety incidents, poor on-time performance and broken escalators, customer satisfaction is declining. Meanwhile, capital spending can’t keep up with depreciation, suggesting that service is likely to get worse, not better.

WMATA projects 1% revenue growth over the next five years but 6%  growth in expenses, requiring a relentless increase in state and local subsidies. To balance the current budget, eight county and city jurisdictions jacked up subsidies from $780 million to $877 million. Not only does WMATA propose to lock in those higher subsidies, it proposes increasing them at the rate of 3% annually over five years.

In a FY 2017 budget guidance document, WMATA management acknowledges that local governments will be hard pressed to deliver. “Some jurisdictional representatives have made it clear that they cannot sustain such high levels of subsidy growth year over year given their own revenue growth and competing needs for investment in tools, public safety and other priorities.”

So, what can be done? As Martin Di Caro writes for WAMU.org, rising personnel costs account for 70% of the cost growth in the 10-year outlook. The current contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union expires June 30. Given the potential for disruptive strikes, however, it’s not clear that management has the stomach to extract significant concessions from the union, either in reduced compensation or reform of productivity-sapping work rules.

Another option is raising fares — charging riders a higher percentage of what it costs to provide a ride. Di Caro considers a fare increase “likely,” although higher fares are likely to depress ridership, undermining the goal of raising revenue. Yet another alternative is pruning money-losing bus lines, although cutting service would not endear WMATA to the localities it is asking to pay bigger subsidies.

As WMATA rightly observes, a system failure is unthinkable. WMATA provides a critical service; the Washington-area transportation system cannot function without it. But it’s clear the system is in a slow-motion train wreck.

Bacon’s bottom line: WMATA should be a warning to every Virginia jurisdiction about what can go wrong with mass transit. The blue-state mass transit model is broken. By “blue state,” I refer to a set of attitudes that are most prevalent in blue states: a sympathy for transit unions, which means high compensation costs and low productivity; a reluctance to charge riders the full costs of providing their service, which depresses revenues; and a proclivity to seek federal aid, which comes with expensive regulatory strings attached.

The only good news in this picture is that transportation is undergoing a shared-ridership revolution, in which private companies use smart phone apps, savvy algorithms and flexible routes to provide bus and van service at a competitive price. Instead of increasing subsidies for a failing business model, Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation and local governments should be asking themselves how they can foster the rise of the new mass transit paradigm.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise.)

Getting Around London

red_buses

by James A. Bacon

London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Tourists flock there by the millions, and most of them have cameras. The Parliament building, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey… the list of world-class photo-worthy historical sites goes on an on. And then there’s the scene shown above — nothing that the typical tourist would care to capture digitally. But it caught my eye because four double-decker red buses were visible on the same street in one shot, and it illustrated one of the more mundane aspects of London — how the 8.5 million inhabitants get around.

While the Bacon family rushed from one incredible attraction to another on vacation last week, I bedeviled my wife and son by pausing at seemingly random spots to capture images of things that visitors take for granted, such as parks, buses, crosswalks, plazas, sidewalks and ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. As an amateur student of human settlement patterns, I have a keen appreciation for how people organize their build environment. Citizens of countries around the world flock to London not just to visit but, despite a punishing cost of living, to live and work. Even if you stripped away the metropolis’ impossible-to-reproduce historical attractions, it still would be an awesome place. Part of that awesomeness, which won London recognition last year as the “best” city on the planet, is its transportation infrastructure.

London has an excellent mass-transit system, which includes the London Underground, a network of double-decker buses and some light rail. We had no trouble whatsoever getting around the city without a car. Actually, a car would have been a hassle because parking is difficult and there is an £11.50 congestion charge for entering the busy center city.

crosswalkThe key to making mass transit workable is creating hospitable pedestrian environments. London sweats the details. The first thing to notice is that crosswalks are not located at the edge of intersections, as they are in the United States but set back by several yards. The necessity of considering only left-right traffic flows as opposed to multi-directional traffic flow in the intersection, I presume, is improved safety. In London, the on-street signage remind pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic (of particular help to foreigners, most of whom drive on the opposite side of the road).

pedestrian_spaceThere is nothing resembling a street grid in London, so streets intersect at all manner of odd angles. As a consequence, street designers create a lot of pedestrian islands that allow people to stop halfway across busy intersections rather than risk crossing all the way. The city also installs wrought-iron rails to prevent people from stepping into parts of the street where they have no business stepping. Considering how fast Londoners drive — faster and more aggressively than in most parts of the States — these design precautions make sense.

cyclistI sense that it has been more difficult grafting bicycle-friendly infrastructure onto the street network. How would you like to be the cyclist at left, riding that close to a huge bus?  Cycling remains relatively dangerous by comparison to other transportation modes. There have been five cycling fatalities in London so far this year. Just last week, 55-year-old Moira Gimmell, recently picked by Queen Elizabeth to oversee renovations at Windsor Castle, was struck and killed by a truck.

Despite the issues unique to bicycles, London as a excellent transportation system overall. An American friend, who has lived in London for about a decade, does not own a car. He doesn’t need one. I’m sure that millions of other Londoners have made the same choice of going carless. A trip on the Underground near the center city costs about £1.7 (more if you’re traveling to outer boroughs), or $3.00. Say the average Londoner takes three bus or rail trips daily, costing about $10 daily. That’s $3,600 a year, or half the price of owning a car. That savings helps offset the mind-numbing price of real estate. (A two-bedroom flat on the street where we stayed is on sale for £1,250,000, about $1.8 million.)

How much does it cost to maintain this system? Thanks to the density of development and the high cost of operating an automobile, Transport of London captures a large share of total travel. Revenues in the year ending in 2013 (the most recent year I could find) amounted to about £5.6 billion, generating a loss of £1.2 billion, or about 20%. I suspect that’s pretty efficient by the standards of mass transit authorities in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper than building new or wider roads. Given the high cost of real estate in London and the narrow street setbacks, the cost of expanding roads would be astronomical.

Transportation systems are always a work in progress, and London is no exception. Personally, I like living in Richmond, Va., where I can load four of five bags of groceries into my car — try lugging four bags of groceries with you on the Underground. Car ownership offers convenience and privacy in travel that no mass transit system can replicate. But I can definitely see the allure of the London way of life.