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Perfecting public transportation: 10 U.S. cities with progressive plans

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Moving forward on moving their citizens, from expanded light rail to better bike share systems

Expo light rail line in Los Angeles
Expo light rail line in Los Angeles
Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

Welcome back to Property Lines, a column by Curbed senior reporter Patrick Sisson that spotlights real estate trends and hot housing markets across the country. Comments, tips, and suggestions on where Property Lines should head next are welcome at patrick@curbed.com.

All cities are connected, both literally and figuratively, through transportation. Whether it’s by car, bike, bus, rail, or our own two feet, urban dwellers share the common problem of navigating quickly and easily, and cities share the burden of putting systems in place to make that possible.

And now, in an era of Trump, when federal transportation funding might be drastically cut, they also may need to be even more creative, and independent, in funding and figuring out how to make getting there less painful. Luckily, cities are increasingly making the rights investments, and as these 10 demonstrate, finding new ways to move forward.

After consulting with a number of transportation experts, including Jeffrey Wood from the Overhead Wire, Alex Dodds from Smart Growth America, and Alex Engel from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, we came up with 10 project that move beyond the gridlock of standard practices and traditional thinking. None of these cities has devised the perfect transportation system, but each showcases a solution that could make any commute better.

Indianapolis: A Cultural Trail helping downtown step forward

These days, first-time visitors to Indianapolis are often impressed by the dynamic neighborhoods, cultural amenities, and new developments, all signs of a booming downtown.

They would have no idea that a good portion of the momentum in the Hoosier capital came from a seemingly simple, two-tone walking trail that took nearly two decades to complete.

Since its final stretch opened in 2013, the 8-mile, $62.5 million Indianapolis Cultural Trail has become a vital thread linking thriving neighborhoods, a catalyst for an expanding cycling culture, and a pathway to prosperity for local developers (a study by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute puts the total boost to property values at $1 billion).

Lined with striking sculptures, including a “fragrance machine” that emits the scent of roses, the trail’s power to increase pedestrian traffic and turn vacant buildings into businesses has helped neighborhoods such as Fountain Square and the area along Mass Avenue blossom. The vision of Brian Payne, the President of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, to link together the city’s cultural districts has turned a simple walking path into a connector that continues to bear fruit: the up-and-coming Market Square area, where a new Deborah Berke-designed office complex just opened, and a new 21c Hotel is in the works, is fast becoming a prime example.

Next stop: This year, Indy starts construction of a new 13.1-mile bus rapid-transit line that will run on dedicated lanes for 60 percent of the route. It’s one of the most visible payoffs coming from the transit referendum that passed last year.

Los Angeles transportation future
Rendering of proposed changes in the Figueroa Corridor in Los Angeles
Courtesy of MyFigueroa

Los Angeles: Moving sustainably on a massive scale

Can the capital of Cali car culture embrace transit? Lately, the answers seems to be hell yes, as a raft of progressive environmental measures, planning initiatives, and transit investments signify a new take on transportation in our second largest city.

The forward-thinking Mobility 2035 Plan, which was approved by the City Council in August, proposes a new network of bike lanes, bus-only lanes, and steady road diets for many L.A. streets. A new autonomous vehicle policy, the first in a major U.S. city, anticipates how burgeoning tech may impact city streets (and put parking lots to better use), and the Mayor’s Sustainable City pLAn advocates for reducing vehicle-miles-traveled and increasing the use of shared mobility systems.

Even more encouraging, the city has the money to back up the vision. The transportation windfall from the recently passed Measure M, a half-cent sales tax increase, will bring in $121 billion for transit investment, including ongoing light rail extension as well as greenways and bus-rapid transit that will help low-income riders. Urbanites looking to head west can leave their cars at home.

Next stop: Light rail extension under construction, such as the Crenshaw Line, and subways being built, such as the Regional Connector and Purple Line, will extend service to new neighborhoods and connect existing rail lines.

The A-Line train in Denver last October
The A-Line train in Denver last October
Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Denver: Bringing a better way to build transit online

Denver, in the midst of a population boom that’s making an expanded rail network a necessity, designed a better way to build its way out of gridlock. The new Eagle P3 project, which stands for public-private partnership, offers a new model for bringing private dollars into public projects, where both partners share the risk.

When done well, these types projects can make huge, complicated infrastructure projects quicker and more manageable to roll out. The nation’s first use of a P3 to build commuter rail, the University of Colorado A Line, cut transit time from downtown Denver to the airport in half when it opened last year.

It also cut costs; an independent study found the line was finished faster and saved the regional transit agency $300 million. With the Trump administration suggesting that P3s may be key to their proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, this project could be a pioneer.

Next stop: The G Line, which runs from Union Station downtown to Wheat Ridge, a northwest suburb, and was built with Eagle P3, should start operating later this year, part of the expanding FasTracks program, which includes 122 new miles of commuter and light rail lines.

Houston: Rethinking what bus service looks like

Does switching an entire city’s bus system overnight sound like a reasonable plan? For Houston, flipping the switch on a new service map for its METRO service in August 2015 turned out to be a stroke of strategic brilliance. Previously, the system ran on a traditional hub-and-spoke system, filled with zig-zagging lines headed toward the downtown with numerous redundancies. The new system stuck to a grid, creating quick, cross-town routes designed to increase ridership and speed.

Initial results beat expectations: from September 2015 to July 2016, ridership jumped 6.8 percent, bucking national trends of declining bus ridership. Even better, the dramatic, overnight overhaul cost the city nothing. Recent declines in service, which some have attributed to cuts in oil and gas unemployment, have dimmed enthusiasm for METRO, but staff have said the goal of simpler, more efficient rides has already been achieved.

Next stop: Houston transit is looking at adding more express service and signature routes to boost ridership.

Philadelphia’s Indego bike share system
Philadelphia’s Indego bike share system
Shutterstock

Philadelphia: Bike share for the whole city

It’s almost become a stock image for cities: millennial office workers, yanking a two-wheeler out of a bike share stand and pedaling to work with a smile. When Philadelphia opened its Indego bike-share system in 2015, the system decided to broaden that picture. With a third of its bikes in low-income neighborhoods, the system was designed to be diverse and inclusive from the start, battling against a common complaint in other cities that these systems don’t do a good job of serving minority communities.

So far, Indego’s plan has proven an exception, and biking downtown has skyrocketed. A cash payment option helped broaden the program’s reach to low-income residents, and community ambassadors help sell the program to underserved areas across the city.

A recent discount membership plan available to those who qualify for food assistance programs was a big success, adding hundreds of new riders. Indego hits its goal of a million rides, a push eventually dubbed the “Philly to a Milli” campaign, earlier than expected this past fall.

Next stop: A recent state grant will help add 16 more stations to the system, as well as 17 more miles of protected bike lanes.

Seattle: Everything at once, and going all in on multimodal transit

Both blessed with a tech-fueled job boom and cursed with a constricting location between mountains and water, Seattle is starting to feel the pinch when it comes to traffic issues. That’s why the city’s down payment in diversifying transportation, the $900 million Move Seattle levy passed in 2015, was such a crucial relief valve. Along with the recently passed $50 billion rail expansion, it’s given the city, as well as Sound Transit and King County Metro, a chance to build a different transit network.

Over the last two years, they’ve done just that, rapidly adding bike and bus infrastructure and new rail lines, as well as building on previous successes, such as the nation’s only bus-and-rail tunnel in the country, which sees hundreds of buses during rush hour. The ST3 rail plan will lay down 62 miles of new, grade-separated light rail linking together 37 new stations (it’ll expand the system five times by the time it’s done). As laid out in a new video by Streetfilms, the build-up is adding up: 70 percent of trips to downtown aren’t in a private vehicle.

Next stop: The crucial Center City Connector, a streetcar linking two of the city rail lines, just broke ground and will open by 2020.

Phoenix: Rail rally brings transit to the desert

A desert city with stifling heat sounds like the last place car-happy American commuters would make a big jump to public transit. But in the flat, gridded streets of Phoenix, rail has been on the rise. Since the city’s light-rail system debuted in 2008, ridership in the air-conditioned cars has soared above predictions. A Central Avenue connectors runs 20 miles through, as the name implies, the middle of town, and it is quickly expanding, with new funding approved for regional expansions.

What’s the secret? Rails attract riders, and cranes. Fast expansion—when the system opened, it was the largest single rail extension in U.S. history—has turned rail into an economic booster, one of the reasons behind downtown densification and development. The city’s rail line, constantly held up as a model to other cities, isn’t slowing down: Valley Metro is eyeing 66 more miles of light rail by 2034.

Next stop: Streetcars and rail systems in neighboring Tempe and Gilbert will link more locals in the metro to the growing systems, with plans in the works for extensions in nearly every direction.

MBTA Performance Dashboard
The MBTA’s new performance dashboard, which shows real-time bus and train performance data
MBTA

Boston: Beautiful data helps a train system come clean

Bostonians, like commuters everywhere, gripe about the delays that come with the T, the city’s urban train system. While those at the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) running the system can’t always make rides smooth, they can come clean about the problem. The new MBTA performance dashboard offers the public a first-in-the-nation performance dashboard showcasing train and bus stats in beautiful, jargon-free data displays.

This “Fitbit for transit” offers real-time data on every line in the city, giving commuters the ability to see when systems are performing to par, or just going through a daily rush, and developers a powerful tool to create transit apps and tools. Nobody says fixing the delays isn’t the long-term goal; but by being upfront and information, the MBTA is being a pioneer in presenting commuters with the whole story.

Next stop: Expanding the system to increase reliability and transparency for the agency.

Altamonte Springs: How cities can collaborate with Uber

In an era of reduced budgets and improved technology, this central Florida city found a high-tech way to outsource transportation while improving public transit access. Altamonte Springs’s first-in-the-nation partnership with Uber plans to pay the ride-sharing behemoth up to $500,000 over the next year as part of a pilot program.

The city’s new initiative, which creates a geo-fence around the 9.4-square-mile town and lets app users within city limits receive subsidized rides—they just enter the promo code ALTAMONTE in the app—is part of a pioneering experiment in supporting multimodal transportation via ride sharing. The system set up to pay for rides—a unique municipal subsidy that covers 20% of any ride that begins and ends in the city, 25% if it begins or ends at the local SunRail light rail station—has already gotten others cities in the surrounding Seminole County interested in replicating it

Next stop: The program has expanded to nearby cities, such as Lake Mary, Longwood, Maitland and Sanford, and larger metropolises, such as San Francisco, are trying to figure out how to incorporate these types of options into their own transportation plans.

Chicago: Investing in a second waterfront

Chicago is often called the city on the lake. But if a spate of projects along the rapidly changing Chicago River continue at their current pace—especially the new centerpiece, the downtown Riverwalk—the city is poised to have a second waterfront that doubles as a new transportation corridor. If Grant Park, a downtown gem, is the city’s front yard, this newly redesigned 1.5-mile section of shoreline on the elbow of the river—a series of “rooms” containing walkways, staircases, theaters, and nature areas—could be its living room.

A collaborative project by Sasaki and Ross Barney Architects, the new civic gathering space gave a river historically known for barge traffic and factories a striking facelift, one of many urban waterfront rehabs across the nation turning shorelines into new downtown thoroughfare. Amenities such as the kayak dock point to the river’s future; the city and organizations such as Great Rivers Chicago have a long-term goal of transforming the city’s rivers, including the Des Plaines and Calumet, into recreational and transportation corridors, with recent projects such as high-design boathouses and the Cal Sag Bike Trail hinting at what changes may come to the city’s 150 miles of riverfront.

Next stop: The mammoth, in-the-works Riverline development in the south loop includes a public river walk; the Lathrop Homes public housing project along the river is being redesigned, while redevelopment near the former A. Finkl & Sons Steel Plant on the northwest side is transforming Goose Island into a tech hub and may include an extension of the 606 bike trail to the river.