Tools for neighborhood-friendly rail

The hard part about putting transit where the people are is that there’s stuff there already. It’s easy to build new transportation infrastructure through open fields. It’s much trickier to do it in a built up city.

The good news is that it’s been done before. We have 150 years of experience in building rail transit in cities. Along the way, we’ve created up a toolbox of ways to make transit work better and fit into the city better. Today, some of my favorite tools. Some are already in use in Houston. Others come from across the country and across the world. But we know they work.

Green track

Transportation engineers are comfortable with concrete. But a train doesn’t need pavement; it only needs a pair of two inch wide rails. What’s in between them is irrelevant. In France, they’ve re-discovered what New Orleans has known for 150 years: you can grow grass between the tracks. It looks a lot better. It absorbs water. And it makes it obvious to motorists that they shouldn’t drive on the tracks.

(photos from the Paris tram official site)

Street trees

Trees belong in streets: they shade, they beautify, and they absorb pollution. They also go well with light rail, either along the sidewalks or in the center of the street.

Tools Streettrees

Signalized left turn lanes

Left turns are traffic trouble spots, regardless of whether rail is involved or not. And by far the best solution is left turn lanes. They’re safer than left turns from through lanes, reducing crashes by 50%, and they’re not ignored like “no left turn” signs. Where rail runs in the middle of the street, signalized left turn lanes are a safe way to allow turn across the tracks. The bonus: capacity. A 4-lane street with left turn lanes has has 30% more capacity than a 4-lane street without turn lanes. Conversely, a 2-lane street with turn lanes has 2/3 of the capacity of a 4-lane street, but takes only 3/4 as much space at intersections and 1/2 as much elsewhere.

Tools Leftturn

Pedestrian crossings

There can be good reasons to close some cross streets to through traffic at the rail line. We did that in Midtown, and it hasn’t harmed traffic. But it can be very disruptive for pedestrians. The solution? Pedestrian-only crossings. There are a few in Midtown, and they work very well — there’s never been a pedestrian hit by a train on any of them. The secret? The crossing zig-zags in the median, forcing pedestrians to look down the track they’re about to cross so they will see an oncoming train. And the median acts as a pedestrian refuge, so one only has to cross one half of the street at once. That reduces the chance of pedestrians being hit by cars, actually making the crossing safer than before the train was there.

Tools Crosswalk

lane reductions

Just because a street has four lanes doesn’t mean it needs four lanes. Some street capacity is desperately needed. But other streets can be narrowed without affecting traffic. Consider Main Street Downtown: there are a pair of high-capacity one way streets on either side that don’t run close to capacity even at rush hour. In Downtown, reducing Main from six lanes to two meant wider sidewalks and landscaping. Elsewhere, it could eliminate the need to take property, or it could mean added parking. And fewer lanes doesn’t need to mean no left turns: you could still have turn lanes at intersections.

Tools Lanes


Rail can be separated from traffic lanes by curbs or by lane markers. But it can make sense to provide a more prominent barrier. Fences make it obvious to drivers which lane they should be in and prevent jaywalking. And, if they’re well designed, they can look good, too.

Tools Fence


Sidewalks aren’t beautification; they’re transportation. Wide sidewalks enable people to walk more. And people need to walk to get to a train station. The bottom line: wide, shaded, attractive sidewalks will encourage more people to leave their cars at home and ride rail. They’ll also make for a better neighborhood.

Tools Sidewalk

bike racks

We tend to think of bikes as recreation. But they’re transportation, too. A bike can be a really good way to get to a rail station if it’s a bit too far away to walk. But where do you put the bike? Lockers, rented and locked, if you ride every day. Racks if you don’t.


Yes, that’s 2/3 of the CTC logo. San Jose believes in intermodality.

OK, you say. We have tools. But who decides how to use them? METRO, for one. But also the City of Houston. They will do that right only if the public — the people who live and work in these neighborhoods — has its say. How does that happen? Here’s one way:

kick-off workshop for all six corridors
Saturday, April 14, 2007 at 8:30 am
George R. Brown Convention Center

See you there? And in our forums?

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