Comments Approved

Comments approved back to December 2013. This “Ian Mitchell” fellow has a lot of good things to say… oughtta start his own blog.

What I want from the new Grand Texas theme park

PTC trains with single-position lap bars.

That is all.

The Interurban Option – Prereqs

Alon‘s had a long-running series on the comparative construction costs of transit modes in different countries. It’s good reading.

At the same time, I’ve always been a fan of the “Interurban Option” – running commuter-rail levels of service to low-density areas using rolling stock that is compatible with inner-city LRT systems. I’ve previously suggested that North Carolina’s research triangle would make an ideal location for such. But in order for lower-ridership/lower-frequency LRT to work, you need lower-cost LRT.

The other night I was reading up on the history of the Chicago’s Skokie Swift (“yellow line” in the blandified, post-World-Cup naming scheme). Chicago has a long history of interurbans operating over the “L” network. The North Shore came in on the Howard line, while the Roarin’ Elgin got on the Congress “L” at Forest Park. These trains operated all the way to the center of the loop, as contrasted with other cities where interurbans ended at suburban terminals (e.g. Philly-69th) or duplicated the streetcar system (e.g. Pacific Electric). This kinda thing should work.

But back to Skokie. Construction was ridiculously cheap. Catenary had been pulled down when the North Shore Line folded, but a few miles of third rail remained extant. Rather than rebuild catenary over the entire route, wire was hung only over the unelectrified portion. To switch, trains built up speed, coasted past the end of the third rail, and raised a special bespoke pantograph designed by the PM, to switch to wire. This continued until 2004.

This sort of inexpensive construction wasn’t unheard of in the 60’s and 70’s. The San Diego Trolley originally used street-level boarding (this was pre-ADA). Calgary’s C-trains didn’t have air conditioning until quite recently (and some still don’t). Portions of Portland’s MAX and Bmore’s LRT were single-tracked, though the latter proved short-sighted.

Similar cost-containment would be needed to make Interurbans a success. For instance, the Skokie Swift carries 7,000 riders daily. At current prevailing costs, a double-track LRT line of the Skokie Swift’s length with an ultimate ridership of 7k would have to be considered a failure, not worth the effort, fodder for a Randal O’Toole piece on the superiorities of bus rapid transit. But 7,000 riders would be quite respectable for a single commuter rail line. Many of the legacy Philly lines operate in this region, while New Mexico’s Rail Runner (my personal favorite FRA-compliant New Starts project) carries only 4500.

So let’s talk about what it would take to make Interurban – LRT vehicles at commuter rail frequencies – work.


This one’s pretty simple. Wooden ties don’t last as long as concrete, and the heavy federal match on most rail projects biases everything in favor of high capital cost/low operating cost. But wooden ties are *cheap*. This is the reason historically pretty much every railroad everywhere has used them. Moreover a rail tie which sees 20-minute peak headways and 60-to-90-minute headways elsewhere is going to be subjected to a lot less stress than a core LRT trunk running every 7 minutes. And while the “best practices” recommendation in your project plan (and your cost benefit) is going to recommend replacement on 20-year intervals, deferred maintenance as practiced by all legacy US operators will see lightly used wooden ties pushed out to a 40 or 50 year lifespan.


Most US LRT goes in with catenary befitting a German mainline railway. This is, again, an outgrowth of the US transportation culture’s bias towards front-loading capital costs. Trolley wire is cheaper, but wire is more difficult to keep properly tensioned. The upshot is that on a low-traffic railway, you can have slack wire and it’s still all good. Sure, the increased friction from slightly slack wire increases wear on both wire and pantograph. But when you’re talking about a system that runs 90-minute off-peak headways, this is trivial compared to the cost of the primo stuff. Along with trolley wire, you should also


You can start to see the common dynamic here. Wood is cheaper than steel, but doesn’t last as long. What’s better? Electric utilities public and private invariably choose wooden poles. Only with trains do we start with stainless.


This is where the commonality ends. Single-track operation needs to recognize two facts. First, if the line gets busy enough, double-tracking will be required. Secondly, trains sometimes run late. Therefore, single track operation needs two components to be effective.


Trains are enclosed spaces. LRVs are more enclosed than commuter trains or Amtrak, since they’re not vestibuled. For this reason being on a train that’s stopped in the middle of nowhere can be sort of disconcerting. Moving all meets to stations means the train chills for a couple minutes with the doors open (or if it’s hot outside, with the doors openable by pushing a button). This is much more pleasant for the passenger.

Moreover, delays can and do happen. Attempting to VE out passing tracks based on a sound operating plan will only lead the system to be obsolesced sooner. A stop every couple miles with a passing track is good for 10-minute headways. A stop every mile with one is good for a bit over 5. This sounds like overkill until the 5:53 gets delayed by a fair trade protest until the 6:07 and the 6:32 are right behind it.


Pedestrian overpasses on low-frequency rail lines can be justified where there are multiple tracks, which are also used by 79mph freight trains of death that take eight miles to stop. However, most every LRT out there is capable of a 3.0mphps deceleration rate or better, which lessens the need for ped grade separation.

With at-grade ped crossings, island platforms are much safer because there is no “multiple threat” issue. The platform itself serves as a pedestrian refuge, and if there is access from both sides a “zig zag” sidewalk can be used so that all peds cross in front of or behind the train. Different agencies appear to have different preferences in this regard. Island platforms are also optimal from an operations perspective, since you can “wrong rail” trains without any inconvenience to passengers. Among other things, this allows express trains to pass locals.


In practical terms, this means that a single track should be built off-center, so that it becomes part of a later double track. At a minimum the distance off the ROW centerline should be half the minimum track spacing (e.g. 6 to 7 feet), but ideally there’d be enough room for a second track under construction as well as a row of construction vehicles. This probably means grabbing a 10′ easement along the property adjacent to the future second track. In most suburban contexts, the cost of this easement will typically be a fraction of a second track, even if you factor in the the discounted cost of a second track 20-30 years in the future.


In theory, running next to rail corridors is a great idea. In practice, this only works if the adjacent land uses don’t have rail service. Otherwise you end up like Dallas or San Jose, building gigantic multi-mile concrete bathtubs to take LRVs over industrial leads that see one train every three weeks.


A lot of suburban commercial strips have relatively continuous boundaries where the backs of the stripmalls and big boxes end and single-family homes behind. Teasing a rail line through this boundary region requires a ton of strip takes and probably some people’s backyards, but once this is done you’ve basically got grade crossings every 1/4 to 1/2 mile and there’s enough queue storage space between the gates and adjacent traffic signals that you don’t need to spring for a fiber interconnect. Basically the rest of your design takes care of itself.

Similar routes exist along old land survey lines. Master-planned communities of the Woodlands/Highlands Ranch/Summerlin variety tend to make up only a fraction of the urban form. The rest of it is built out piecemeal, so that the original outlines of 50-100 acre plots can be seen from the air. In the Mountain West and the Plains these are often half- and quarter-sections; in Texas and the East they’re a little more esoteric. Following these lines you can grab parking lots, yards, etc. Garden complexes are particularly easy to work with since you can take out the strip of parking along the fence, raze a building, then reconstruct the parking in its place.

All of this drives up right-of-way costs, but you also get to minimize capital and O&M outlays. And the cash saved by using a “free” roadway or highway ROW is easily wiped out by median paving or overpasses at interchanges. Basically you want to find an alignment that lets you use cheap construction, instead of trying to find a cheap alignment and then letting the construction cost chips fall where they may.

What’s In A Name, Part Deux

In my last post I rattled off a few fake neighborhood names that should probably bite the dust, then took the final two paragraphs to dis Houstonia magazine. Enter longtime Houston Press alum John Nova Lomax, who pens a missive defending his new employer’s honor.

I feel bad for you son.

So let’s address a few of the guy’s arguments. Roughly half of them are Argumentum ad Strawmanum; Rice Military, Cottage Grove, and Eastwood are, I argued, all legit names – I just look askance at people who use them in place of more generic terms like “Washington” or “Third Ward.” Hyde Park is pretty clearly a part of Montrose. And Upper Kirby is fine – Kirby at least runs north south, so the northern segment is “up” on ye olde Key Map.

The same, however, cannot said of Westheimer. Lomax writes:

Lower Westheimer has a feel that differs slightly from its surrounding area.

Really? Westheimer and Fairview combined are the very essence of Montrose. Poison Girl, Catbirds, the Tower, Chances, Mary’s, Felix, Numbers – Montrose institutions, past and present, and all located on Westheimer. The Pride Parade is on Westheimer. The “Montrose Block Party” – in both its current, low-key incarnation and its raucuous past – has always closed many more blocks of Westheimer than the neighborhood’s namesake street. By contrast, “Lower Westheimer” mostly gets trotted out to describe the location of upscale newcomers like L’Olivier, Uchi, and Underbelly.

In fact there is a well-established pattern to neighborhood renamings. I’m usually content to leave the Social Justice Warrior stuff to tumblr, but given that Lomax calls me out twice for using “offensive language” (his head’ll explode if he ever sees this post), I feel compelled to point this out.

Neighborhoods that have been traditionally described as “Wards” are overwhelmingly majority-minority. Renamings happen when white folks move in. So when the townhomes went into “First Ward,” as commenter Rosanna pointed out on the last post, it magically became “Sawyer Heights.” Fourth Ward didn’t get renamed, but a quick perusal of HAR listings shows that its houses are only described as “in the shadow of Downtown” or “near the new Carnegie magnet school.” Contrast this with “Heights,” which infects not just the Washington Avenue corridor but also listings that are well into Spring Branch or Garden Oaks.

This was what I was getting at with the line “you too, Eastwood.” Eastwood is a real place, but it’s also part of the Third Ward. So for instance, when I mentioned to a friend of mine (who is an Eastwood homeowner) that I was looking at listings “in the Tre,” he immediately thought I was talking about his neighborhood. But other people in the comments section argued that this was not part of the Tre, that the Third Ward actually started at IH-45. Which is, you know, where the black people start.

And it’s not solely a race thing. Commenter ZAW helpfully showed up in both mine and Swamplot’s comments sections to argue for Lower Westheimer:

Tell someone you live in Montrose and they might answer “oh, that’s where the gays live… Um, are you gay?” Tell them you live in Lower Westheimer and the response is different.

This might actually explain why “Neartown” has fallen into such disuse. Three decades ago, being gay made you radioactive. Today, overt ‘bashing is generally frowned upon in polite company, and discriminatory laws – while still quite extant – are falling fast. With few left in Montrose to be ashamed of Montrose, there’s no need for a name other than Montrose.

But it gets even better. Swamplot’s comment of the week from a couple months back asked:

Am I the only one who thinks that the Wash Ave area needs one, unifying neighborhood name? I live in Magnolia Grove, but no one knows what that is, so I have to just say “Off Wash Ave” (though that implies that I moved there to be close to Wash Ave bars, which is NOT the case) … The area’s former name, ‘Smokeytown,’ should also be out for obvious reasons.

Now this I can understand. Who would want to be associated with the sort of people who frequent Washington Avenue drinking establishments? And this is a man after my own heart, looking for an overarching neighborhood name to describe the mishmash of historically-accurate plat names that make up our broad neighborhoods. Still, the way the question is phrased is instructive.

To recap, here is a list of people who white people do not want to be associated with:

-Black people
-Hispanic people
-Gay people
-Other white people

This is the driving force behind neighborhood renamings. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love white people. Some of my best friends are white. I just don’t think we need to keep renaming stuff because they don’t like what it’s already called.

Lomax asks:

So what “general neighborhood name” should these effete snobs adhere to if not Washington Heights?


Fake Names, It’s Gotta Stop

“Lower Westheimer” – This does not actually exist, it’s just Montrose. Or “The Montrose” if you wish to rebel against popular linguistic conventions without going full retard.

“Neartown” – This also does not exist, it’s just Montrose. This appears to have been an 80’s or 90’s era attempt to rebrand Montrose as something other than Montrose, and only appears on official documents. Even the Realtors don’t use it, and Realtors tend to be on the forefront of linguistic murderation (see: “Craftsman”). It should be scrubbed completely from the record.

“Washington Heights” – Again, this does not actually exist. There are legitimate grounds for nitpicking over what to call the small finger of the original Heights plat that extends south of IH-10, but this is a miniscule area – and in any event, if it’s part of The Heights, then it is simply The Heights. If you live off Washington, you live off Washington. If you live in an area covered by another historical name, like “Rice Military” or “Cottage Grove,” that works too – although I’ve always tended to look askance at people who use sub-neighborhood names. It’s as if they’re too elitist for general neighborhood or street names. “Oh you live in Avondale? Tell me more.” However, Washington Heights is right out.

“EaDo” – Seriously? No. No, no, no, no, no. The proliferation of faux New York City style names needs to stop, and it might as well stop here. You can say “Eastside,” or you can say “Third Ward.” There’s no other cutesy names to mine from (like “Cottage Grove”) because historically speaking, no one lived there.

Now, some might argue that this isn’t actually Third Ward. These people are wrong. If you want to see what is and isn’t the Third Ward, walk into Ninfa’s on Navigation and scope the map they’ve got hanging up front by the waitstand. Now find the area to the immediate east of Downtown. See what ward it’s in? Yep. You in the Tre, homie. You too, Eastwood.

“OST / South Union” – This is another one of those names, like “Neartown,” that appears to have been an attempt at top-down rebranding when the Super Neighborhoods were drawn up. But everything west of Cullen and south of Griggs is pretty clearly “Yellowstone” (or “The Yellowstone”), and with all the development focused on Palm Center this will probably end up being the default name for the Griggs/MLK intersection, which was originally part of the South Park plats. There is no other unclaimed land to apply this moniker to, so let’s throw it out along with the rest of ‘em.

“Houstonia” – No one had ever appended the suffix -ia to this city before some Pacific Northwest wedding magazine people tried to hawk their new rag as some sort of localized version of the Texas Monthly. This term is so fake that long-time domain squatters at title their page “The Leading Houston IA Site on the Net.”

This might have been okay if the magazine turned out to be worth anything, but so far it hasn’t. Recent articles mix mindless fashion pieces (“summer season just became maxi season”) with baldfaced attempts at pandering (real Houstonians say San Fi-lippy”). And if the word “Houstonia” sounds a little twee to your ears, you’re not far off the mark. The overarching aesthetic of the magazine is to twee up everything, from a “humorous” map of Houston neighborhoods which named the area out towards Lake Houston “Atisket-Atasketa,” to a recent “top 25 neighborhoods” listicle which described one ‘hood as “Where the treetops glisten and home sales have risen.” Yes, someone actually wrote that. Let that sink in for just a moment.

Will the US ever see non-traditional transit?

I was discussing transit with an acquaintance today, and mentioned monorail as one technology which could be used on certain corridors. This person stated that they thought monorail was “kitschy” and, perhaps realizing that subjective perception of aesthetic merit is a poor criterion for mode selection, proceeded to reach for other reasons to justify writing off monorail as a technology entirely.

I find these conversations to be somewhat aggravating, as the objections are the same ones I heard as an intern with the Seattle Monorail Project a dozen years ago.

“Monorails aren’t a proven technology”
Japan has had monorails in operation for nearly 50 years.

“Monorails can’t carry high numbers of people”
Tokyo-Haneda carries 120,000 a day. Chongqing carries 1.1 million on a system which is roughly a 50-50 split between monorail and subway.

“It takes a long time to switch trains”
No, segmented switches in use in Chongqing and Tokyo cycle in 5-6 seconds. And the suspended Shonan Monorail operates on a single track, relying on intermediate switches to maintain 8-minute headways throughout the day.

I used to field these questions all the time at public meetings. At the time, we thought their days would be numbered. Seattle would have its system, there would be a heavy urban transit monorail in operation with the US, ignorance would no longer be possible. Alas, the Seattle political process struck in the way that it always has, and after four votes in favor of the monorail a fifth took it away. (This isn’t new – in the 60’s, the Feds were prepared to cover most of the cost of a heavy rail system for Seattle. It was rejected, and the money was sent to Atlanta, where it created MARTA).

Meanwhile, Vegas built their line. And while it has decent ridership density (12,000 people over a four mile route), its location among the casinos does little to establish it as a “serious” transit line in the minds of people for whom “seriousness” matters as a criteria independent of such things as system capability, capital or O&M cost.

I was thinking about this when it occurred to me: this sort of myopia isn’t unique to monorail. In fact, it has afflicted many transit modes.

Consider, for instance, Skybus. Skybus was first-generation AGT, developed from scratch by Westinghouse. Automated, driverless, rubber-tired trains would run every 6 minutes, replacing Pittsburgh’s decrepit streetcar system. Skybus came very close to being a reality, but was ultimately killed by political infighting. Pittsburgh instead got a couple of light rail lines and a busway that no one rides, while the rest of the streetcar system was torn up.

But that wasn’t the end of the technology. While Westinghouse was unable to sell it to the transit operators, they did have some success with airport operators, installing the technology at SeaTac (1969) and Tampa International (1971). Over the years the technology passed through Adtranz to Bombardier, where it continues to be the predominant AGT design in the airport market.

Alas, Bombardier never re-marketed rapid-transit-sized rubber-tired AGT, likely because they also have the rights to the original Skytrain technology. But latecomers in other countries were successful; France’s MATRA was able to sell its VAL system to Lille and Toulouse, in addition to various airport clients. The technology passed to Siemens, who have installed line-haul AGTs in Taipei, Seoul, and Turin. Rubber-tired AGTs also made it big in Japan, with the Kobe Port Liner, the Saitama New Shuttle, the Nippori-Toneri Liner, Yurikamome Line and Yokohama Seaside line all carrying substantial passenger loads.

Up in Canada, Vancouver has continued to build out their Skytrain system. But when the contract for the most recent line was tendered, rules were adopted that expressly prohibited consideration of cost savings resulting from using the same technology as the rest of the system. Thus in 2009 the Canada Line opened not with steel-wheeled LIM-powered AGT, but with regular-ass third-rail powered EMUs. Not really all that different from the tech of 100 years ago. Meanwhile, the only substantial implementations of the Skytrain tech outside Vancouver have been in Beijing, Seoul, and Kuala Lampur.

You see the pattern here. Southeast Asian cities look at a rapid transit line, consider all the technologies available, and then make a decision. But Americans (and to a lesser extent Canadians) seem to first run transit decisions through a filter which excludes anything that’s not “serious,” meaning anything that isn’t substantially identical to the transit technology that was installed in cold, dreary east coast cities a century ago.

So Seattle adopts LRT and then ends up with a giant concrete bathtub where they could’ve had two slender monorail beams instead. Pittsburgh adopts LRT and then never expands it, because the city is too hilly to do so without new tunnels. And all across the US, we’re having very earnest discussions about streetcars, which have an average speed of approximately two miles per hour and can generally be outpaced by everyone from novice cyclists to Rascal scooter owners. Meanwhile, Kuala Lampur’s monorail is so popular that they’re extending the platforms to allow longer trains.

Why is this so?

Ain’t Skeered

Craig Hlavaty over at the Chronicle breathlessly asks, should Houston be kept a secret?

Nope. Here’s why.

It’s a stupid question – Everyone has always known about Houston, it’s just that the dominant opinion among east and left-coasters was negative. To the extent that’s now changing, this amounts to complaining “our city which was previously seen in a negative light is now seen as slightly less negative.”

These lists are stupid – This week’s Onion has a spot-on send-up of every “best cities” list you’ve ever read. Go read it.

We’re already corporate – Austin was a university town and the seat of state government, so the arrival of the tech industry was jarring. You have all of these nonprofit service-sector entities surrounded by fields of pastoral goodness then suddenly, capitalism. Houston, though, is an oil town, a port town, a medical town, and our ship channel is lined with only the heaviest of heavy industry. This has always been a city that was in touch with its inner Ferengi.

We already sprawl – My Austin friends tend to complain that the city’s rapid growth has lead to sprawl, big new housing developments, tollways everywhere. You know what they say? “It looks like Houston now.” Hard to get all bent out of shape if Houston ends up looking like… Houston.

No Zoning – In Austin, as in other cities that have undergone yuppification/gentrification, you see rapid price increases as the allowable density under zoning fails to keep up with increasing demand. In Houston you see no such thing. Individual neighborhoods may experience it; the Montrose, in particular, has become increasingly unmoored from reality. But Houston as a whole is still ridiculously affordable.

More specifically, the “cool” neighborhoods which we’re all supposed to feel compelled to “preserve” have now moved outside the boundaries of the actual street grid to encompass typical suburban street and lot patterns. Craig Hlavaty’s piece mentions redevelopment in Garden Oaks, which some time ago became regarded as a sort of extension of the Heights. However, what is Garden Oaks? It’s large lot single family on curving streets without sidewalks. Houston has no shortage of large lot single family on curving streets without sidewalks. In fact, it’s pretty much all we built for about 50 years or so.

Therefore, if the “cool” and “hip” people are ever priced out of Garden Oaks (leaving aside the question of how cool Garden Oaks ever really was to begin with), they will no doubt find some other midcentury suburbia to claim as their own. I coined the term “Sagemont is the new Heights” three years ago but it could just as easily be Sharpstown. I know some cool people who’ve picked up lots on the cheap in Long Point/Spring Branch and have built ridiculously dope modernist boxes, so maybe that’ll be the next “in” place. And when all of this has run its course the hipsters can “discover” Mission Bend, which was the outer fringe 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, legions of realtors will happily guide Californians into Cross Creek Ranch, where they will curse the fact that HCTRA hasn’t implemented my inverse distance-based pricing schemes. Really, it’ll all work out.