To: Raleigh DOT; July 12, 2010
Did you ever stop and wonder if we're going about this all wrong?
I just did.
For months and years -- as long as or longer than I've lived in Raleigh [going on five years, now,] growth of the region and the associated growth of automobile traffic have been topics of discussion, planning, debate, argument and newspaper articles.
Recently, high-speed rail transportation has been added to the mix. The problem: how to get people from one urban center to another faster and cheaper than by car or airplane, two of the hungriest consumers of oil-based transportation services around.
So Raleigh has proposed redesigning its downtown to be more of a major city hub, and at the same time, struggling with the desire to bring high-speed passenger trains to the area at the same time.
This morning, it occurred to me that the design process may have been "all wrong," doomed to failure and dissatisfaction all around from the very start.
I began by thinking about what the basic goal seems to be: moving people quickly and with the least expense between major urban centers.
The solutions today all seem to be loaded in favor of rail transport, because it's quite energy-efficient in terms of "people-miles per gallon." The downside has always been that really fast passenger rail transport has been successfully built only in countries other than the US, with Japan, China, France and a few others held up as role models.
One of the next hurdles surfaced in Raleigh as city planners and DOT officials struggled with changes and redesigns of downtown areas to accommodate multiple rail lines and terminals so that the new links can deliver people to City Center while achieving better safety conditions in terms of grade crossings where auto traffic would interact with rail traffic.
That led me to consider how other cities dealt with similar issues.
The first example that came to mind was Washington, D.C. I've flown in and out of DC and ridden their excellent Metro from some of the furthest reaches of the lines, and both systems, air and passenger rail, seemed to work very well.
Raleigh has a very good system of "ring roads" to carry auto traffic around the City, but the radial flow has always seemed to be the bottleneck. Today, only 40, 70, 401 and 64 serve as large connectors between the 540 and 440 loops and 401/Capital Blvd and 70/Glenwood struggle to bring drivers from the outskirts to the City Center.
What's missing from this picture, I wondered.
I thought about the "original design concept" of Washington: a system of radial roads all leading to the "center of attention," the Capitol (although nowadays it might be redesigned to center on lobbyists' locations and a fast link to Congress) but the design worked very well for centuries.
Where's the airport? In the center of town? Of course, not: the noise abatement issues make that impossible, although it's just a few miles from the Capitol to the DC Airport.
I noticed that RDU is located comfortably outside the Raleigh city center, but after that, I discovered the missing pieces.
People going from one major urban area to another tend to be traveling on business or vacation. (Big Epiphany, right?) But to get where they're trying to go, assuming "from one city center to another" or more likely, from the suburbs of one city to another city, which is closer to reality, what they're really interested in is, "how can I get from home to my final travel destination in the fastest, cheapest, most comfortable way?"
The first thing I've always noticed missing from Wake County is a fast, convenient passenger rail link from RDU to central Raleigh. I-40 doesn't hack it and as it skirts around the City, it becomes a less and less "direct route" for business or tourist travelers.
What would be nice? A DC-Metro-like link from RDU, for starters, to City Center. The best approach would probably be that of an elevated train or monorail running above existing highways. Smoother and quieter to the surroundings than conventional rail service, with no grade crossings and few stops, it could achieve high average speeds and efficient "people-mover" results, a bit like the people-movers at Denver's Stapleton Airport that takes you from the terminal to the gates. Also like the trams at Dallas/Fort Worth, but with fewer stops and higher speed…
Similar monorail routes could bring commuters in from the northeast and north "above" existing corridors and highways, such as 70 and 401. A route from Raleigh City Center to RDU wouldinvite a natural extension from RDU to the Research Triangle, too.
The underlying design, I discovered, was not that of trying to bring existing rail traffic into downtown, but to bring it to somewhere that the riders could join with other large flows of people going to and from Raleigh .
One other note was to question why large rail lines go into city centers today at all. In the days of urban-centric manufacturing economies, bulk and heavy goods needed to be brought to where the manufacturers were, but I believe that today the situation has changed enough to get us to look at a redesign.
Large manufacturing sites, as for heavy equipment, automobiles and the like do not tend to be located within city limits. Therefore, it makes less and less sense every year to bring cargo rail lines into city centers. While that leaves the tracks available for commuter rail, the persistent issue of grade-level crossing safety will not go away, either.
Putting commuter lines in a radial fashion around cities and collecting travelers on high-speed modes together might make more sense, and that leads to the concept of mating airports with high-speed passenger rail lines and high-speed commuter transport.
The airports become the hubs of transport in and out of regions and all kinds of high-speed transport can meet there, such as interstate highways, air lines and passenger rail. Much of the connecting infrastructure is there already, and the heavy-rail requirements would be less expensive to deliver there than to try to run them through urban and suburban neighborhoods.
The "radial" design for monorail feeders from the suburbs and nearby towns to the larger cities makes the "logical layout" practically self-defining. Draw lines between cities and towns and put the monorails above existing roadways. Run them over interstate paths where possible, too. Use city or regional airports as collection hubs for all high-speed travel, which gets the railroads outside city centers, where they're no longer "naturally located."
And consider these concepts before tons of money are spent trying to stuff rail systems into the middle of cities where they don't belong any more. If you were to be planning a transit system to last for twenty or fifty years, would you be designing with grade crossings at all? Or Diesel-electric engines pulling cargo through downtown?
Please: step back and reconsider!