May 01, 2018

London, Chicago and LA: a tale of three cities

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Last month’s World Metro and Light Rail conference, organised by Terrapinn in Bilbao, Spain, provided an opportunity to compare the impact which different political climates have on three major transit systems. David Briginshaw contrasts the fortunes of Los Angeles, London and Chicago.

BILBAO with its stylish, modern metro and tram system was a good location for Terrapinn’s annual metro and light rail conference, as it demonstrates what can be achieved even in a relatively small city - Bilbao has a population of around 350,000 - if the will and the political backing are there.

The conference provided an opportunity to contrast the fortunes of three major cities: Los Angeles, London and Chicago, and to illustrate how vital it is to have cross-party political backing for capital projects, which often span more than one term of office.

Leanne Redden 2Even then, new administrations can introduce policies with major consequences for long-term planning, as happened in London when the mayor, Mr Sadiq Khan, who took office in May 2016, decided to implement a four-year fares freeze. While London Underground’s managing director, Mr Mark Wild, says this has resulted in traffic flatlining, compared with the recent reductions in ridership affecting some other British train operators, it has made it hard to grow revenue and achieve financial targets.

“It costs about £3bn to run the Tube each year,” Wild told delegates. “Our fare recovery is 120% of operating costs, but we want to reach 140%. Our aim is to achieve 2-4% cost savings a year.”

On the capital investment side, London is doing a lot to increase capacity. The £14.8bn 118km Crossrail project to provide a new east-west metro line through the city centre is 92%-complete and will open in phases with full operation scheduled for December 2019.

“We will start with 15 trains/h/direction on the central section and then move up to 24 trains/h/direction and possibly beyond that,” Mr Chris Sexton, Crossrail’s technical director, explained. Sexton says five factors have been critical to the successful implementation of Crossrail:

  • stable governance, requirements and funding
  • a clear technical client and defined accountabilities for
    all design
  • consistent political and stakeholder support
  • safety and sustainability built in, not added in, and
  • shared objectives with the supply chain.

London Underground’s strategy to increase capacity on the existing network is centred on the introduction of CBTC at Grade of Automation 2 (GoA2). Wild says it is not currently possible to go to full GoA4 driverless operation in London because station platforms are too curved and lack the structural integrity needed to support platform screen doors.

“Our vision is to get to ‘peak Tube’ in the 2030s with 24-36 trains/h/direction; beyond that we will need to build Crossrail 2,” Wild said.

Like London, Los Angeles has a political climate that is increasingly supportive of transit. Although, as Mr Phillip Washington, CEO of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA), admits, the city is playing catch-up.

“We have a population of 11 million in Los Angeles County and the worst congestion in the world,” Washington told delegates. “We went out to voters and asked for a half-cent sales tax. This will generate $US 120bn over the first 40 years with no sunset, which means it does not end. We are looking to build 15 more lines.

“We have also decided to complete 28 projects by 2028, the majority of which are for rail, in time for when the Olympics will be in Los Angeles.”

“Eke-out”

In contrast, Ms Leanne Redden, executive director of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which is responsible for Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the Metra commuter rail network, and Pace bus services, says Chicago does not have the luxury of greenfield expansion. “We are trying to eke out from what we have,” she said.

RTA published its 2018-2023 strategic transit plan in January. “Trains and buses are our region’s most important mobility assets,” Redden said in January. “We should be investing $US 2-3bn in capital each year to keep our system in good shape and move forward with new innovations. However, we’re currently not even investing half of that each year.”

The plan contrasts with RTA’s current five-year capital spending plan adopted in December 2017 which calls for an investment of $US 4.2bn and just $US 1bn for this year. For the fourth consecutive year, RTA says it cannot expect capital funding from the state of Illinois and needs to find a sustainable funding source.

Washington says people understand locally the need to invest in infrastructure, as demonstrated in 2016 when voters around the country approved 70% of the transit initiatives presented to them. “There is still a lot of work to do at the federal level to convince politicians that investing in infrastructure is important,” he told delegates.

For the next 10 years, RTA has identified priority projects worth a total of $US 30bn, of which $US 17.5bn is for CTA, £11.6bn for Metra and $US 1bn for Pace, but which are not yet fully-funded.

On a more positive note, Redden says Chicago has made one decision which will benefit public transport. “Chicago has levied a fee on Uber and Lyft, so that every trip generates funds for investment in public transport,” she told delegates.

This is one way to turn disruptive entrants to the public transport market into a benefit, rather than trying to fight them as London threatened, and is something which other cities would do well to emulate.

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