If We Build it, Will They Get There Safely?

20 Aug

For the most part, transit projects are evaluated based on a pretty narrow set of criteria. Cost reigns supreme, but transit agencies and funders (like the FTA) also place heavy emphasis on efficiency and ridership numbers. Finishing a project on time and under budget is (rightfully) the goal of most transit providers. But the prominence of these metrics may obfuscate the aspects of transit that are most important to the end-users. And, in some cases, the focus on cost savings may negatively affect passenger safety.

Passengers compute their own cost-benefit analysis when considering transit, and the annual inflation-adjusted cost effectiveness breakpoint [PDF] isn’t likely to be a factor. Instead, users are more likely to consider safety, access, convenience, and comfort when considering a taking a trip by transit.

In many places, existing transit systems fail to create a pedestrian-friendly environment [PDF] in and around transit lines. In fact, many transit stations are downright inhospitable for pedestrians. No one likes waiting for a train in the median of a busy freeway, catching a bus under a poorly lit overpass, or waiting on a desolate subway platform to catch a train that comes infrequently. Not only do these conditions make transit-riding an unpleasant experience, they may dissuade people from riding at all, decreasing the value of long-term transit investments.

A recent study by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation highlights how an undue focus on cost-savings may come at the expense of passenger comfort. The study found that transit stops centered on (or adjacent to) highways in the Los Angeles area create a host of un-pleasantries for users. Stations located along the freeway median often allow for faster operations, lower construction costs, and reduced community opposition. But for transit riders, these stations often require passengers to cross dangerous freeway on- and off-ramps, and subject them to considerable highway noise and harmful pollutants. Noise levels on these station platforms often exceed 80 decibels, which is more or less the equivalent of standing near a kitchen blender.

The study recommends some design interventions that may, at least in part, mitigate noise issues at station platforms, including high-backed benches and sound walls across the length of a platform.

On the safety front, it’s recently been reported that Los Angeles’ Blue Line is on track to have its deadliest year ever. An inexplicable increase in accidents and fatalities in 2012 has prompted the creation of a Blue Line Task Force [PDF] to examine current safety procedures along the 22-year light rail system. Some reports point the fact that the line largely runs at street level as one factor. Running the line above or below roadways and sidewalks may have avoided many of these conflicts, but it also would’ve come at an increased up-front cost. It’s worth noting that several light rail projects have successfully mitigated against many of the conflicts that arise when trains are running at street level.

These examples are Los Angeles-based, but the lessons are applicable to other locales. Transit projects throughout the country still focus on creating lines situated on or along busy freeways. And conflicts between trains operating at street-level and cars, pedestrians, and cyclists are a well-known phenomenon. These studies provide us with teachable lessons on the possible pitfalls of focusing solely on project costs when evaluating transit projects.

It’s helpful to note that many agencies are looking more holistically at transit project evaluation. The federal government has launched the DOT Livability Program which considers the wider implications of transportation, transit, and land-use. And local and regional entities are looking at ways to improve pedestrian and bicycle access in and around stations.

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