Last Thursday night, I attended INCOG's "What about Rail?" public forum, ably covered elsewhere in this issue by reporter Brian Ervin (Page ). Here are a few scattered reflections on what was said:
Mayoral adviser Jack Crowley was absolutely right to point out the costs of sprawling low-density development. When everyone travels by private car, the needed parking requires too much space between places to make an area walkable and dense enough to support transit.
He's right to point out that it costs more to provide city services to a given number of people the more spread out they are. You need more fire stations and firefighters, more police officers, more miles of road, more miles of water and sewer line.
Crowley is correct that Tulsa lacks the density to support transit. The question is how do you, as he put it, "generate density."
In 1950, Tulsa was in the top 20 cities in the country in population per square mile, with 182,740 people packed into 26.7 sq. mi. for a density of 6,844. Today, the 1950 boundaries have only about half the population they did then, thanks to urban renewal, expressway construction, and institutional expansion.
Also to blame: Houses that once were home to families of four or more are now home to one or two, thanks in large part to the decline of Tulsa's school system.
Crowley believes you reverse that with rail. The existence of a light rail system, he says, will attract developers, and that within six to eight years you'll have transit-oriented development (TOD) -- densely developed, walkable, mixed-use areas near stations on the line.
His concept, covered in last week's UTW story, "Much Ado About Downtown," by Brian Ervin, is to open up for development the soon-to-be vacated Public Works maintenance yards and the Evans Electric -- Fintube industrial ruin. The two sites would be linked by light rail using three miles of existing track. There would be stops at or near the OSU College of Medicine, the State Office Building, the BOk Center, Union Station, and the Blue Dome District.
The Public Works site is between 23rd St. on the north, the Sinclair Refinery on the south, Jackson Ave. on the west, and the Arkansas River on the east. The Evans/Fintube site is east across the railroad tracks from the OSU-Tulsa campus, north of Archer and west of US 75.
Crowley's idea has some plausibility. Effectively, the light rail service would create annexes to downtown. Under ideal conditions, someone could live in one of the two new transit-oriented developments and could reach any place they need to go downtown as conveniently as if they actually lived downtown.
Of course, we aren't exactly running out of land downtown, and developers climbing over each other for the chance to turn all those downtown surface parking lots into something interesting.
On the one hand, folks like Michael Sager and Elliott Nelson are doing great things with the existing stock of older buildings.
On the other hand, the only bare dirt development underway downtown involves KOTV -- moving from one part of downtown to another -- and TCC, developing a piece of property west of its downtown main campus.
Two attempts to develop a fairly large contiguous area on the eastern edge of downtown have fallen flat, and nothing seems to be happening with land along Denver Ave. held by Twenty-First Properties and its sister companies. That makes me doubtful that this new sorta-kinda-downtown vacant land connected to downtown by light rail will do any better.
The one advantage these two TOD sites might have is that downtown seems to be plagued by owners who are banking land, waiting for some speculative bubble which will give them a chance to unload for huge profits. So it might be easier for a developer to make something happen in these TOD areas.
Then again, the Tulsa Development Authority (TDA), which owns the targeted TOD zones, isn't exactly quick to sell land to someone ready, willing, and able to develop it.
I was amused to hear Jack Crowley once again make the argument that rail is better than bus service because the permanence of railroad tracks would give developers confidence to build high-density, transit-oriented development alongside. According to him and other rail advocates, tracks tell builders and potential riders that the city is committed to providing service, and sooner or later a train will come by.
It's an odd argument to make, given that Crowley's concept would use existing tracks to connect the two potential development sites.
There are plenty of counterexamples to the assertion that tracks mean trains, or in general terms that building transit infrastructure means a commitment to continue using it.
For example: In Boston, the MBTA's Green Line branches out and emerges from below ground as four surface streetcar lines, labeled B, C, D, and E. The B line ran down Commonwealth Ave. to Boston College. In college, in the early '80s, I lived about five blocks from the B line stop at Babcock St., and that's where I'd wait for an inbound streetcar.
Just a block or two to the west, I could see another pair of tracks branching off and heading down the middle of Brighton Ave. The tracks still had overhead wires, and once in a while I'd see a trolley moving down the tracks, but always displaying "X Out of Service" on the rollsign.
It turned out that this was the mysteriously missing A branch of the Green Line, which once upon a time had served Watertown. Streetcar service was halted "temporarily" in 1969, replaced with bus service.
Passenger service never resumed, but for the next 25 years, the A branch was used to run cars to a maintenance yard at the end of the line. In 1994, the yard was closed, the overhead wires were taken down, and the tracks were paved over.
I'd have starved to death waiting for a streetcar if I'd assumed that tracks plus overhead wires meant a commitment to regular service.
Right here in Tulsa, the same tracks that once carried streetcars to Sapulpa and Sand Springs still exist and are still in use, but neither route has been used for passenger service in more than half a century.
We don't assume that the existence of a street means a bus will be coming by, so why should anyone assume train tracks means that you can expect a streetcar?
Attracting transit-oriented development requires the transit system to give potential riders the confidence that they'll be able to get a ride whenever they need one to wherever they need to go. It takes more than a bus shelter or a set of rails to accomplish that. The transit system has to offer sufficient hours of operation and sufficient frequency of service. The potential rider needs to see a vehicle pass by on a regular basis. You can do that as well with a bus as with a tram.
Boston's 57 bus, the one that replaced the A train to Watertown, runs from 5am until past midnight, with a bus every six minutes during rush hour, every 10 to 12 minutes off-peak, and every 20 minutes early morning and late at night. Frequencies are about the same on weekends, minus the extra rush hour service.
Headways (intervals between vehicles) on Boston's surviving streetcar lines are only slightly better than the bus, ranging from 5 minutes during rush hour to 11 minutes late at night. The hours of operation are the same, and both bus and streetcar lines run from early morning until late at night on weekends as well.
The only disadvantage of the 57 bus over the streetcar it replaced is the need to transfer to the subway at Kenmore Station to go all the way downtown.
Thursday's forum included presentations from the head of Denver's Regional Transit District and Austin's principal planner. The two cities are considered comparable to Tulsa in that they too experienced decades of sprawling, auto-dependent suburban development.
Both cities are trying to use rail to relieve nightmarish traffic and encourage higher-density infill. Denver's light rail system is already in operation; Austin's 32-mile commuter rail line is set to begin operation this fall.
What's notable is that both cities provide a much higher frequency of service and much longer hours of operation than Tulsa's bus system.
Denver's light rail system operates from before 5am to after 2am seven days a week. Headways are seven or eight minutes throughout most of every weekday; about half as frequent on weekends.
While Austin's rail system is not yet in operation, the city already has a dense network of bus lines connecting downtown, the University of Texas campus and the suburbs. Route 1, for example, runs from 5am to midnight on weekdays, with 11 minute headways most of the day. Bus lines are a quarter to a half mile apart through most of the city, compared to a mile apart for most of Tulsa's bus lines.
It's not surprising that ridership in Austin is orders of magnitude greater than Tulsa's.
Here's a ridership comparison, using stats from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA): In 2007, Denver's system (including buses) logged 82.1 million trips, Austin had 35.6 million, and Tulsa had 2.4 million.
On an average weekday, Denver had 285,600 riders, Austin had 139,500.
Tulsa had 9,300.
Keeping that in mind, consider a point made by panelist Dwayne Weeks. Weeks is with the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts and Small Starts Project Review Team. He said that when the Feds consider applications for transit grants, they don't show any favoritism to rail. They don't buy the "build it and they will come" assumption that rail ridership will be exponentially greater than existing bus ridership.
Neither should we.
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