American city has world-class Metro Rail, Interstate High Speed Rail & Rapid Transit

Only one American city has a comprehensive Metro Rail system; credit Grace Dadson

Interstate High Speed Rail and Rapid Transit

To complement High-Speed Rail and Regional Rail in our quest for space-efficient sustainable transportation infrastructure that reduces traffic congestion and air pollution, America must accelerate Metro Rail and Bus Rapid Transit projects in our metro areas. We must also do a few more things to increase their ridership demand — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America

Rapid Transit Definitions

Before a mild dive into America’s Rapid Transit needs, two definitions are in order. Depending on the naming convention of each American transit agency, “Metro Rail” means Heavy Rail, Light Rail, or both. Since they have substantially different infrastructure costs and vehicles, I differentiate them as “Metro Heavy Rail” and “Metro Light Rail.”

Commuter Rail is called “Suburban Rail” in Europe. “Regional Rail” is common in Europe and NYC. It is an emerging rapid transit mode in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore-Washington, and San Francisco Bay Area, and related to Intercity Regional Rail described later in Part 6.

Metro Heavy Rail

Support 27-35 mph Average Speeds; electric trains draw current from a 3rd rail; tunnels and over/underpasses separate trains from automobiles for high schedule dependability; station platforms are level with train floors for fast boarding-offboarding; stations are designed for 500-900 rider capacity; trains run 2-5 minutes at Peak, 8-15 minutes Off-Peak; a single Metro Heavy Rail line can transport 4-5 times commuters/hour than a 6-lane freeway; Construction Cost Per Mile is Very High, Operational Cost Per Mile is Medium.

Automated Light Metro Rail

Supports 27-35 mph Average Speeds; driverless electric trains draw current from a 3rd rail; viaducts and tunnels in Central Business Districts separate trains from automobiles for high schedule dependability; station platforms are level with train floors for faster boarding-offboarding; stations are designed for 300-400 rider capacity; trains run every 2-5 minutes Peak, every 6-10 minutes Off-Peak; Construction Cost Per Mile is High, Operational Cost Per Mile is Low. Vancouver has an Automated Light Metro Rail system and Honolulu opens its first line soon.

Metro Light Rail/Trams

Supports 18-20 mph Average Speeds; electric trains draw current by extending pantographs to overhead electric wire; dedicated lanes and some street closures; Station platforms are low, but level with train floors for faster boarding-offboarding; stations are designed for 150-300 rider capacity; trains run 4-8 minutes at Peak, 8-15 minutes Off-Peak; Construction Cost Per Mile is Medium, Operational Cost Per Mile is Medium; European-style Trams/Metro Light Rail are common to Dallas, Houston, Portland, Charlotte, and Phoenix.

Enhanced Metro Light Rail

Supports 22-32 mph Average Speeds; electric trains draw current by extending pantographs to overhead electric wire; they have dedicated lanes, more street closures, include some tunnels, viaducts, over/underpasses or run in freeway medians to achieve higher Average Speeds; Station platforms are level with train floors for faster boarding-offboarding; stations are designed for 150-300 rider capacity; trains run 4-8 minutes at Peak, 8-15 minutes Off-Peak; Construction Cost Per Mile is Medium, Operational Cost Per Mile is Medium; Enhanced Metro Light Rail is generally being built as a substitute for more expensive Meto Heavy Rail and is common to Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego & Seattle.

Commuter Rail

Commuter Rail

Supports 25-35 mph Average Speeds; trains run on many miles of rail shared with freight trains and often have 1-track segments that limit the frequency of trains traveling in opposite directions; by 2026, nearly all will use diesel-electric locomotives for lower smog and greenhouse gas emissions; they have lower schedule dependability because autos, people, and animals cross tracks at too many places; stations rarely have platforms level with train floors; stations are designed for 150-300 rider capacity; trains typically run every 60 minutes at Peak and 2-3 hours Off-Peak; Construction Cost Per Mile is Very Low, Operational Cost Per Mile is Very Low matching a low level of service.

Suburban Rail

Supports 35-50 mph Average Speeds; In Europe, electric-powered trains draw current by extending pantographs up to overhead electric wire; they have 2 Tracks with intermittent Siding Track for freight trains to pull aside, more railroad over/underpasses, street closures, and automated train control for higher schedule reliability; most lines have or plan to add station platforms level with train floors for faster boarding-offboarding; most trains run every 10-30 minutes; Most lines have or plan to add station platforms level with train floors for faster boarding-offboarding; stations are designed for 300-400 rider capacity; most trains run every 30-60 minutes; Construction Cost Per Mile is Low, Operational Cost Per Mile is Low.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

Supports 16-22 mph Average Speeds; they mostly run on Dedicated Busway, but have fewer over/underpasses and street closures than Metro Light Rail; sub-par BRT designs run a portion of their route in mixed-traffic like local buses, lowering their average speed; BRT has 75-90 seats; they run every 6-8 minutes at Peak, 12-15 minutes Off-Peak; station platforms may or may not be level with bus floors; stations are designed for 70-100 rider capacity; Construction Cost Per Mile is Low, Operational Cost Per Mile is High due to more drivers per rider; by 2035 most BRTs will transition to electric power, drawing their total construction costs closer to some Metro Light Rail lines.

Streetcars are not Rapid Transit but exist in two dozen cities across America. Vintage Streetcars in New Orleans, San Francisco, Memphis, and Tampa have been good for tourism. In general, Vintage Streetcars are a good value for taxpayers. Though their stops and electrification required updates, railways for these systems were paid for decades ago. In some cities, their vehicles are also renovated by private funds.

Modern Streetcars in America have vehicles and stations that look similar to European Tram systems. They also have longer distances between stops. But Modern Streetcars in America don’t run in dedicated lanes, don’t have crossing signal priority, don’t run at high frequency, and don’t have comprehensive multi-line systems like Trams in Europe. Since no Modern Streetcar in America attracts high ridership, I have yet to see one that has good Benefits over Costs.

Highways Wrecked Many Black & Brown Urban Communities In America

Automotive Culture came into dominance in 1946, just after World War II when more state and national highways sprouted around America. Buses started replacing streetcars. The Highway Lobby and sympathetic politicians abused Auto Culture to decimate mostly Black and some Latino urban communities for new highways to pass through. The primary beneficiaries were White veterans using the GI Bill to purchase new homes in the suburbs and White Middle-class citizens who stayed home during the war. Both groups started moving to bigger homes in the suburbs and created the White Flight trend.

In 1956, federal funding of the Interstate High System supercharged White Flight and the destruction of more Black & Brown urban communities. That increased Vehicle Miles Traveled between urban and suburban areas.

Los Angeles Metro Area became the poster child of “Highway Expansion-Suburban Sprawl-White Flight.” Other metro areas embraced LA’s approach too, spreading White Americans further from urban jobs, colleges, hospitals, and entertainment venues. As new highways plowed through once-thriving Black & Brown communities, a million Black veterans from World War II were denied full benefits from the GI Bill. Latino Americans faced similar denial of full GI benefits but their population was smaller in the 1940s and 50s.

Today, White, Black & Brown middle-class residents share those congested urban-suburban highways. They have lower speeds at Peak Hours sapping American productivity. Highway and boulevard congestion also keeps smog & greenhouse gas emissions high despite more Remote Work, Electric Vehicles, and Hybrid Vehicles. Population growth and highway-sprawl development are increasing Vehicle Miles Traveled too.

As Europe proves in similar size metro areas, the best way out of this dilemma is to build “Rapid Transit Mesh Networks.” We can’t redevelop vibrant communities that once existed, but we can develop new communities around intermodal transit centers in large & medium metro areas. As of 2023, America’s Top 53 Metro Areas have 1+ million population. Our Top 36 Metro Areas have 2+ million population. Our Top 15 Metro Areas have 4+ million population. Our largest metro areas are Chicago (10 million), Los Angeles (19 million), and NYC (21 million).

European metro areas prove that “Rapid Transit Mesh Networks” preserve & enhance what we love about urbanity. One example of benefits to Europe’s metro areas is their Rapid Transit Mesh Networks place residents within 1/4 to 1/2 miles of a Metro/Tram Station or 1/4 to 1 mile from a Suburban Rail Station. Most adult residents in France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK drive cars but average significantly fewer Vehicle Miles Traveled because they have Rapid Transit Mesh Networks.

Rapid Transit Mesh Networks built Strong Transit Culture that rivals Strong Automotive Culture in metro areas.

NYC anchors America’s only metro area with Strong Transit Culture that attracts over 55% of daily commuters. It has a hyper-dense population that supports 24 Metro Heavy Rail lines, 12+ Commuter Rail lines, and 2 Light Rail lines that attract very high ridership per mile. NYC also demonstrates how Rapid Transit saved taxpayer money by avoiding 3-to-4 times more land-taking for highway lanes.

Since our politicians cut federal & state funding of Rapid Transit, even NYC Metro Area falls short of a world-class Rapid Transit Mesh Network like Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, and Shanghai.

Instead of 20% open, Second Avenue Subway from Harlem to Wall Street in Manhattan should be complete. The Brooklyn-Queens Interborough Express Metro Rail corridor should already be open. NYC Commuter Rail upgrade to Regional Rail should have finished two decades ago. There should be more Metro Rail crisscrossing Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx without having to go through Manhattan.

Commute troubles are worse in the rest of America. Large metro areas are dipping to 19-22 mph average highway speeds at Peak Hours. Peak Hour commutes are getting longer. More Highway-sprawl development and highway widenings induce more traffic congestion. These trends are no surprise to transportation planners and urban planners. San Francisco was one of the few cities to successfully prevent urban destruction by freeways.

Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, and many others have proven that highway widening beyond 6 Standard lanes & 2 HOV lanes induces more highway-sprawl development and re-congests only 2-3 years later. So building 20-26 lane freeways like Houston and Dallas is insane on the membrane.

Nor will Autonomous Vehicles solve highway congestion in the next 40-50 years. Read this informative article by The Conversation explaining why.

Excessive Highway Lanes Cripple Rapid Transit Ridership

From 1964 to 1974 Vietnam War-end, our political leaders maintained a high percentage of federal & state funding for highway expansion, but cut the percentage of funding for rapid transit afterward. This chart by only covers 2010-19, but accurately summarizes America’s 1974-2022 over-investment in Highways compared to under-investment in Rapid Transit.

U.S. Rapid Transit vs. Highway Building 2010-19

U.S. Rapid Transit vs. Highway Building 2010-19; source TheTransportPolitic

Rapid transit’s funding gap with highways is starkly evident in America’s Top 50 Metro Areas. While highway expansion enabled more suburban sprawl development and Middle-class Flight, Transit demand tanked.

Excluding NYC Metro Area, only 6 metro areas have 8+ Rapid Transit lines of any type:

10M Chicago Metro Area – 8 Heavy Rail, 12 Commuter Rail lines
4.9M Boston Metro Area – 3 Heavy Rail, 11 Commuter Rail, 5 Light Rail lines
6.1M Philadelphia Metro Area – 3 Heavy Rail, 12 Commuter Rail, 4 Light Rail
6.3M Washington Metro Area – 6 Metro Heavy Rail, 4 Commuter Rail, 1 Light Rail (u/c)
7.5M San Francisco Bay Area 5 Heavy Rail, 1 Regional Rail, 2 Commuter Rail, 8 Light Rail
19.1M Los Angeles Metro Area – 2 Heavy Rail, 7 Commuter Rail, 4 Light Rail

Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia have partial mesh networks because most of their Metro Rail infrastructure was completed before 1946. Washington and San Francisco Bay Area form partial mesh networks because they were among the few to attract substantial federal & state rapid transit funding from 1964 onwards.

What Should Rapid Transit Mesh Networks Look Like?

How many rapid transit lines are appropriate for our large & medium metro areas? American metro areas should follow the best practices of European metro areas. After the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo, European metro areas have been electrifying their Suburban Rail (“Commuter Rail”), expanding Metro Heavy Rail and building Trams to form mesh networks that attract 62% of commuters. Several rail map links demonstrate successful Rapid Transit Mesh Networks by population size in Europe:

942K Nice metro area – 3 Trams, 3 Suburban Rail lines
2.3M Lyon metro area – 4 Heavy Rail, 7 Trams, 5 Suburban Rail lines
3.2M Rome metro area – 3 Heavy Rail, 3 Trams, 7 Suburban Rail lines
4.7M Berlin metro area – 9 Heavy Rail, 24 Suburban Rail lines
4.9M Milan metro area – 7 Heavy Rail, 9 Suburban Rail lines
6.0M Madrid metro area – 12 Heavy Rail, 3 Trams, 9 Suburban Rail lines
14.7M London metro area – 11 Heavy Rail, 15+ Suburban Rail, 3 Trams lines

Make Rapid Transit a Funding Priority

Though NYC is addressing its shortcomings this decade, Chicago, San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Los Angeles need 50-to-300% more mileage to form Rapid Transit Mesh Networks with high-frequency service by 2040. They must influence other metro areas to upscale the infrastructure and adopt similar Transit Culture.

Let’s review their Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, and intermodal transportation plans for growth.

Opened in 2003, AirTrain JFK in NYC is America’s first Automated Metro Light Rail Line. In 2023, Honolulu opens America’s second Automated Light Metro Rail Line. Given that American transit unions prefer drivers, I’m not sure how many more will be built.

Around 1995, Grand Central Terminal transformed into an intermodal transportation center bustling with retail & hotel activity from dawn to midnight. The recently opened Moynahan Hall expanded New York Penn Station capacity and features HSR, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Intercity Buses, Uber, Lyft & Taxis that attract very high ridership. The awe-inspiring World Trade Center Transportation Hub and the vibrance of transit-oriented Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens enable NYC to be the most visited international destination in North America.

Chicago is upgrading old Metro stations, buying new Metro trains, expanding three Metro Heavy Rail lines, and building a BRT circulator connecting Amtrak, Metro Heavy Rail, and Commuter Rail lines. Eventually, Chicago Union Station and nearby Oglivie Transit Center will connect High-Speed Rail, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Intercity Buses, Metro Rail, BRT, taxis, Uber & Lyft.

Boston is extending 2 Metro Light Rail lines, gradually electrifying Commuter Rail, and modernizing subway stations. It is also upgrading South Station an Intermodal Transportation Center with more retail space to host more HSR & Regional Rail (by Amtrak), Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Intercity Buses, Uber, Lyft & Taxis activity.

Philadelphia 30th Street Station is upgrading to an Intermodal Transportation Center with more office & retail space to host more frequent HSR, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Intercity Buses, Uber, Lyft & Taxis activity. Philadelphia is upgrading commuter Rail to Regional Rail status as part of Regional Rail upgrades. At long last, Philadelphia is also planning 2 Metro Heavy Rail extensions.

Washington Metro Rail lines intersect at several Metro Rail stations and go to Washington Union Station. The latter is a spectacular intermodal transportation center for HSR, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Intercity Buses, Tourbuses, Uber, Lyft & Taxis. In 2022, Washington Metro Heavy Rail expanded to Dulles International Airport. By 2026, the Washington Union Station waiting area expands and more offices & residences will open over its tracks. A Metro Light Rail line is under construction ringing the Maryland side of the Washington Metro Area and connecting to Washington Metro Heavy Rail stations. Remaining Commuter Rail to Regional Rail upgrades should complete by the mid-2030s.

In 2023, BART, Metro Light Rail, Commuter Rail, Vintage Streetcars, Cable Cars, and Ferries are within 2 blocks of the San Francisco Salesforce Transit Center. In 2024, the 49-mile Caltrain Commuter Rail electrification between San Francisco and San Jose completes with more railroad over/underpasses coming this decade and next. Over 2030-31, a short tunnel opens to allow Caltrain to enter Salesforce Transit Center, BART extends to downtown San Jose and to the upgraded San Jose Intermodal Transportation Center.

In 2023-24, a new LAX Airport People Mover connects to the Metro Light Rail network, Metro Light Rail network finally connects through Downtown LA, and one Metro Heavy Rail line extends to LA Museum District. In 2026-28, a new Metro Light Rail lines opens and while another line extends further east. Metro Heavy Rail extends to Beverly Hills, Century City, and Westwood near UCLA, and most Los Angeles Union Station upgrades complete in time for Metro Light Rail lines, Commuter Rail & Amtrak Regional Rail upgrades will complete by the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. By 2030, significantly more railroad over/underpasses will complete to benefit all trains heading to Los Angeles Union Station. Los Angeles Union Station will better connect Amtrak Long-Distance & Regional Rail, 6 Commuter Rail, 2 Metro Heavy Rail, 3 Metro Light Rail, and many BRT lines.

2040 Los Angeles Metro Area needs a Rapid Transit Mesh Network similar to this 2045 Los Angeles Rapid Transit Vision Map drafted before the 2021 federal infrastructure funding bill.

Call to Action for Other Metro Areas

Atlanta, Dallas, Baltimore, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Seattle, San Diego, Portland, Cleveland, St. Louis, Sacramento, Pittsburgh, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis-St. Paul need 3x to 5x more project funding to form Rapid Transit Mesh Networks that attract 30-35% of daily commutes by 2050.

Norfolk-Virginia Beach, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Nashville, Buffalo, Hartford, Austin, Nashville, Detroit, Milwaukee, Louisville, Tampa, Orlando, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Richmond also need large Metro Light Rail and BRT systems to attract 25% of daily commutes by 2050.

Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute studied the importance of Rapid Transit and increasing bus frequency in 100,000+ population urban areas. His study reveals a strong correlation between people with no Rapid Transit access and low-frequency bus service to higher unemployment levels. Consider those benefits as America’s Top 250 Metro Areas jog to 200,000+ population and our Top 70 Metro Areas race to 2+ million by 2050.

America needs successful Metro Rail & Bus Rapid Transit systems as strong partners to High-Speed Rail & Intercity Regional Rail as discussed in Part 6.

Part 6: Interstate High Speed Rail Progress

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