Friday, January 15, 2010

At-Grade’s Drawbacks Can’t Be Airbrushed Away

Something's added to this photo, but something's also missing.
This artist’s rendition depicts the kind of train that the American Institute of Architects, Hawaii Chapter wants built in Honolulu. Several points of interest in this depiction are not obvious at first glance:
The first point is obvious; the train is at ground level, as would be cars and trucks crossing its path heading makai at this intersection of Maunakea and Hotel streets. Car-train interaction in Phoenix, AZ has produced an average of one accident per week for the city’s at-grade trains in their first year of operation.
The train is just feet from Hotel Street pedestrians, suggesting a significant safety hazard.
At-grade trains must travel slowly through crowded urban neighborhoods like this one, unlike overhead trains that are completely unaffected by surface congestion and hazards.
The train shares Hotel Street with TheBus, resulting inevitably in schedule conflicts and delays.
Unlike automated elevated systems, at-grade trains require drivers. Humans at the controls means greater accident risk, and time between trains must be at least twice as long as between elevated trains.
You have to look closely, but this is a short two-car train – much shorter than elevated trains. At-grade vehicles in Honolulu couldn't extend beyond the ends of Chinatown's short city blocks. This requirement significantly lowers the number of commuters transported on each train and therefore by the entire system.
Unless the architects think their trains will be powered from beneath street level somehow, trains will require overhead wires to supply electricity. Those lines are absent from this depiction.
And finally:
The artist has airbrushed out the pedestrian crosswalk across Hotel Street at this intersection; the existing crosswalk is easily seen in a photo taken from Google Maps (below). Pedestrians don’t just walk along Hotel Street but across it, too. Honolulu already has too many pedestrian accidents and deaths; adding trains every few minutes to congested neighborhoods would increase pedestrians' risk – especially among the elderly.
Monday’s AIA panel discussion at the State Capitol will be an opportunity for proponents of the City’s planned elevated system to highlight at-grade rail’s severe drawbacks during the open-mike session.


PRT Strategies said...

You missed a very important point that would support your argument for elevated technology -- this photo leaves out the catenary (overhead) wiring that rail requires for power. Catenaries must be suspended from poles, streetlights or nearby structures, so that's even more cabling that creates an eyesore and must be maintained. You might take a look at street scenes from San Francisco to get an idea of how intrusive this cabling can be as their "Muni" system uses both electrified streetcars and trolley buses.

And don't let anyone argue there's an underground 3rd rail -- that technology might be on the drawing board, but we've not seen it implemented. The new Phoenix rail system uses overheard power transferred to the vehicle via a pole extended from its roof. And, even if it was eventually feasible, do you really want high voltage under a street that has pedestrian traffic in your wet climate?

The only sensible idea for elevated transportation in Honolulu is Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), and everyone's welcome to consider it at

Doug Carlson said...

Thanks for you contribution to the list of short-comings this "photo" reveals. I may even add it to the list above.

But we do part company again on our preference for elevated transit. You prefer PRT, and I commend you for your persistence. I'll still with the City's current plan for steel-on-steel trains gliding 30 feet above the surface. Let's keep the discussion going.

PRT Strategies said...

While our opinions diverge, it's encouraging we can discuss this as adults. I wish I could be there for the 1/18 AIA presentation as I'd like to question them about these sorts of issues (they should definitely be called on photoshopping their arguments) altho, to be fair, I note they do address the issue in their PowerPoint (incl "wireless" power transfer which I'd still be VERY skeptical of).

You might also pay a visit to this new page on our website: where we're concetrating on the safety argument re. rail. This should be more of an issue than it is in southern California given the 25 killed, 100+ seriously injured by Metrolink just last year. And over 90 deaths on the Long Beach <> LA Blue Line should just NOT be acceptable. The NTSB is issuing their report on the Chatsworth crash next week.

JN said...

Given the choice between grade-separated rail and at-grade rail, the choice is obvious. Quick, quiet and conflict-free service is the way to go, if it can be done.

However, there is a danger of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. A fully grade-separated system does not come cheap, and many estimates place the cost-per-mile of elevated systems as high as five times that of surface LRT. With the state of the economy right now, that can easily be the difference between a train and no train. I don't know what Hawaii's state budget looks like, but if it's anything like most other states, this is a concern.

Also, safety concerns are often overplayed. The Metrolink statistics that PRT Strategies points out are from one single (albeit serious) incident in Chatsworth, which involved a head-on crash with a freight train, something I doubt you'd see in a street-running LRT. (Or in Hawaii at all, for that matter, as I believe there is no freight rail in Hawaii.) The Blue Line is constantly cited as an example of light rail's danger, but it is an outlier. Light rail runs safely at-grade on the LA-Pasadena Gold Line, and in San Jose, Sacramento and San Francisco every single day.

Sure, if the choice is between an elevated train and a street-level one, it's obvious. But if it's between a street-level train and no train at all, choose the former.

Doug Carlson said...

Thanks for your comment, JN. I think the key phrase in your assessment of the economy is "right now." Our rail tax collection is happening over 16 years, and most of us don't believe this economic downturn is going to last much longer.

The first-year record of the Phoenix system seems to be an accurate reflection of at-grade's relative "danger" compared to grade-separated transit. It's averaging one crash per week. Honolulu drivers have much different circumstances -- a narrow city without much ability to avoid an at-grade system's right of way, and drivers who've mostly never had to co-exist with trains and their at-grade crossings.

Plus, Honolulu's population is one of the oldest in the country. I'm not exaggerating when I say the elderly are in serious peril here. Honolulu has one of the worst records in the nation re pedestrian traffic deaths. Two more deaths of pedestrians in their 70s and 80s happened just this week; they were in crosswalks. A third was run over this week and lingers in critical condition. Adding trains every few minutes in Chinatown, where the population is even older, could have bad consequences.