In U.S. Transit, It’s Back to the Future

"HK STOCK INTERIOR" BY MATTHEW BLACK IS LICENSED UNDER CC BY 2.0

OPEN GANGWAYS ARE COMMON IN MOST PARTS OF THE WORLD (“HK STOCK INTERIOR” BY MATTHEW BLACK IS LICENSED UNDER CC BY 2.0)

Advocates in the U.S. often wonder why transit agencies aren’t on the forefront of innovation. Recent news of plans to purchase new railcars in New York and Chicago, however, suggests a more troubling question: Why can’t our transit operators catch up to where the rest of the world was a generation ago?

In New York, the recent case in point is the MTA’s toe-in-the-water approach to open-gangway subway cars. Such cars, which allow passengers to walk the entire length of the train and also provide significant capacity improvements, are considered the global standard. They’ve been used in the Hong Kong subway system for more than 35 years, and in Paris for more than 20. As Henry Grabar wrote at Slate, however, transit agencies in the U.S. seem to be special cases:

So why don’t we have open gangway cars in New York—or anywhere else in the United States? The answer lies partly in the uncertain science of transit design, a murky domain where 150 years of experimentation has yielded surprisingly few universal solutions.

Open gangways, as it happens, may be one of the more widely used elements of subway design. You will find trains like these on every subway system in China, India, Spain, and Germany, as well as in Dubai, Singapore, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, and Toronto. According to research by planner Yonah Freemark, open gangway trains run on 3 out of every 4 subway systems in the world. Mexico City hasn’t bought separate-car trains in two decades.

Yet open gangway trains are nowhere to be found in the United States. They will debut in Honolulu in 2018. New York City might request 10 of them—in an order of 950.

In Chicago, a similar problem is plaguing Metra, the commuter rail operator, which announced its intent to purchase more than 300 new railcars. Steven Vance reported for Streetsblog Chicago that the agency intends to preserve its cars’ notorious “gallery” design, which was originally conceived as a way to save time for conductors:

The gallery car’s disadvantages are numerous, however. Passengers must climb five steps through a single door and then choose a half of the car, entering through a small door into a narrow corridor, where they don’t know if there’s seating or not. Stairways to ascend to the second level are tight and people can only move in one direction at a time. The second level has a partial floor – reducing seating – and a low ceiling. Wheelchair lifts are necessary because of the high-floors and are only installed on some cars.

Back in the 1950s, Metra’s predecessors started using, in earnest, the rail car design Metra still uses. In two years, when Metra buys new cars and puts them into operation, they’ll essentially be the same as cars built in the 1950s.

This bias against change was not always the case. Sixty years ago, gallery cars were a useful solution in an era when there was no real alternative to having conductors check tickets. New York, too, was once a transit innovator. For five years in the 1950s and ‘60s, operations on one track of the 42nd Street Shuttle were entirely automated—years before computer-controlled trains were widely used. (Today, almost every new transit system uses Automatic Train Operation; the Shuttle went back to having two human operators on every train.)

To understand why U.S. transit agencies seem stuck in the past, however, outdated technology is merely a symptom. The root cause is leadership.

In A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Reform, TransitCenter found that appointment of leaders from outside of traditional transportation-industry circles was essential to producing changes in policy and practice. As New York City’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan hired senior staff from advocacy organizations. Gabe Klein, who recently led the transportation departments in both Washington, D.C. and Chicago, was an entrepreneur prior to his government service. All three cities have been central to the recent revolution in U.S. urban street design, reflected in the fast-growing influence of the National Association of City Transportation Officials street design guides.

Examples from the world of public transportation are harder to find.  But one of the most high-profile innovations in recent transit policy is the redesign of Houston’s bus network, a reform that already appears to be increasing ridership just a few months after implementation.  That reform originated not within agency management, but with Houston Metro boardmember Christof Spieler.

Spieler is an architect who emerged as an online critic of Metro before being appointed to the board by Mayor Annise Parker in 2010. Spieler became the leading voice for the idea that Metro should effectively start from scratch in designing where its bus routes would go and how they would be scheduled. Five years later, Houston has created a model for the country and perhaps the world, and written a new chapter in the history of transportation reform.

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