A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

5 Reasons to Prefer Buses

Councilor Dave Marshall is trying to rally support for a streetcar line in Portland,  Maine.  I've written about this possibility previously, here, and I think it would be great to see it happen someday.

But not quite yet. Portland's regional bus network is woefully inadequate and we need to improve that system first before we talk about spending tens of millions of dollars on a single transit line that only serves a couple of select neighborhoods. Our city needs bus routes to Brunswick and Gorham a lot more than we need a streetcar to Woodford's Corner.

From the other Portland, where they've sunk a lot of money in light rail and streetcar lines, here are five arguments for building cheaper "bus rapid transit" routes — dedicated streets for buses — before we build streetcars and light rail:

Topology advantages. One thing that BRT does easily but rail cannot do is operate in an "open" configuration--meaning vehicles travel in a transitway for part of their journey, and then filter out into the existing street network without need for any special off-transitway infrastructure. Trains can only run where there are tracks and switches, but busses can mix between a busway and local operation. 

Partial operation: The ability of busses to run on ordinary streets has a second set of advantages. It permits easier phasing--agencies building a busway or bus lane can open half of it when it's done, and have busses run in the completed sections of the busway and on local streets the rest of the way, and then shift additional sections of the route into the busway when it completes.

Costs. For Class C/C+ operation [in mixed traffic, similar to most streetcars]; bus is way cheaper to install--it's just ordinarily local bus service, possibly with changes to traffic signals and nicer stations. The equivalent rail technology is mixed-traffic streetcar. Streetcar may be better suited to placemaking and land-use transformations, but the performance characteristics of mixed-traffic streetcar are generally the same as ordinary bus service; but streetcar requires installation of tracks. BRT also lets you do class B [dedicated lanes for buses, similar to most light rail lines] cheaply--if planners are willing to take a traffic lane.

Less prone to catastrophic failure. BRT doesn't break down as easily or as spectacularly when the line gets blocked or closed. This benefit is most often discussed in the context of streetcars vs local bus (where obstacles along the route are plenty), but even [rapid-transit rail] lines are impacted by events such as accidents, breakdowns, power or control failures, and maintenance of the right of way. With a BRT, vehicles can simply navigate around, leaving the transitway if necessary.

The ability to pass. BRT makes it far easier to mix express and local services and provide skip-stop service. Busses can simply pull out of the busway for stops; only a little more pavement and real estate is needed to enable passing. 

Here in this Portland, the streetcar concept is being promoted by nostalgic railfans whose love for trains obscures these more practical concerns. Some of our local rail advocates actually actively protest against expanding the region's bus system because they see it as a threat against their beloved choo-choos.

Unfortunately, as long as transit advocacy is dominated by these train-first fundamentalists, I doubt we'll see much progress of any kind.

Coming Soon: A Connected Somerset Street

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This dead-end section of Somerset Street, next to the Portland Flea for All, is one of many minor nuisances to walking and cycling in the growing Bayside neighborhood. This particular one is located at the western end of the new Bayside Trail, and is one of the reasons that particular pathway is currently so little-used. The street seems to have been disconnected as part of the urban-renewal-era effort to turn Preble and Elm Streets into high-speed, one-way auto expressways.

Thankfully, that's about to change. The city has just put out a request for bids to re-connect Somerset Street across Preble and Elm, and to study possible routes to extend Somerset Street as a bike and pedestrian route all the way to Forest Avenue and Deering Oaks Park. Part of the study component of this project is expected to look into the possibility of making Preble and Elm back into two-way streets, and opening up new redevelopment opportunities on adjacent blocks — possibly something like this.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Newbury Street Lofts: The Architectural Expression of a Midlife Crisis

Some say it looks like a marooned cruise ship. Others point out that its blank first-floor parking garage facade will be an impediment to redeveloping Franklin Street.

The proposed new condos on Franklin Street would feature two floors of parking garage facing Franklin, Newbury, and Federal Streets. The developer, the hedge fund billionaire Donald Sussman, owns a little-used parking lot next door, but he seems to believe that every condo buyer in the city needs to have their cars parked directly beneath them.

But the project's car-first mentality might be the least of its problems. The main entrance is located down a narrow alley, as though it's a gated community.

And the project's architect, David Lloyd of Archetype, tries too hard to distract from the ground-floor ugliness by adding lots of wacky flair to the floors above (hence the cruise ship comparison).

As I wrote in a Portland Daily Sun column today, the proposed "Newbury Street Lofts" are the architectural expression of a midlife crisis — a fuddy-duddy at heart, trying too hard to be "edgy."

Sure, I'm concerned about bums urinating (or worse) in the vacant corners of the parking garage. And I'm concerned about the antisocial attitude the building takes with respect to the public spaces of the surrounding streets.

But what might be the worst thing about this building is how its cheap materials, lousy design, and prominent location downtown are bound to give contemporary architecture a bad name for years to come.

If there's one bright side, it's that such a cheap structure is bound to have low resale values — within a decade it'll likely qualify as low-income housing.

Now that I mention it, it does bear a striking resemblance to some of Portland's 1970s-vintage public housing projects...