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Urban District Mobility

Cities must plan ahead

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UPDATE: Video added below

At the August 26 Livable Houston meeting, J. Sam Lott of Kimley-Horn & Associates discussed how to move people in dense urban areas through the critical “last mile” to their destinations. Lott said that four of Houston’s major urban districts - Downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza, and the Galleria - would fall into the top 15 Central Business Districts nationwide. Downtown and the Medical Center are currently linked by the Main Street light rail line, and once the University Line opens around 2013, all four districts will be linked by rail.

However, Lott said that transit access to and between districts is only part of the answer, because people also must be able to move around easily within the districts. He said a high-capacity circulation system incorporating fully-automated (driverless) “mini-metros” - small, short, very light trains on close headways - could resolve the last mile problem. As auto access to/within busy centers is becoming increasingly difficult due to congestion, such automated systems could be used in full coordination with larger bus, light rail, or subway systems to provide mobility within districts. Connecting mini-metros to perimeter parking areas at the edges of urban districts was another example Lott provided of how to reduce traffic and improve mobility within dense centers.

Pedestrians will generally walk up to 1,000 feet if they are at street level and exposed to the elements, according to Lott, and they may walk up to 2,000 feet through covered walkways such as those in the Medical Center and tunnels such as those in Downtown. To supplement pedestrian activity, he said, some cities have successfully implemented small-scale, fully-automated people-movers, including Miami, Singapore, and Copenhagen. Several US airports, including JFK in New York City, have also created automated circulator systems.

Miami created an elevated, fully-automated “Metromover” circulator system (pictured) in the 1980s and expanded it in the 1990s, relying on the federal government for much of the funding. However, federal funding for similar projects has dried up since then. The Metromover vehicles are relatively small, but service is frequent. According to the Metromover website, trains arrive every 90 seconds during rush hour and every three minutes during off-peak hours. The system is capable of moving 10,000 to 15,000 people every hour, and costs are kept down because the trains do not need drivers.

When the system was first built, Lott said the stations were mostly surrounded by empty or underused lots but that now most of the surrounding area has been developed, giving the city a new, urban feel that is attracting growth. The only problem with the Metromover system, he said, is that pedestrians have no protected way to move around and are exposed to the Miami heat and humidity, a problem that transit riders also encounter in Houston during the summer.

Singapore has a system of three circulator systems, as well as good pedestrian facilities to get people the last several hundred yards to their destinations. Copenhagen has a similar system, but with very compact stations, and JFK Airport opened an eight-mile “AirTrain” circulator in 2003. The AirTrain connects JFK to New York City’s subway and rail systems. Lott said that the circulator, which at points runs down the middle of the Van Wyck Expressway, one of the busiest highways in the world, kept JFK viable as an airport. Without it, he said, traffic congestion discouraged travelers from using the airport.

Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is another alternative that might be particularly popular in Texas, he said, providing riders with their own fully-automated vehicles. Transportation planners have debated PRT for the last 30 years, he said, but those plans are finally coming to fruition at Heathrow Airport in London and Upsala, Sweden.

The ideal transportation system, Lott said, will be multi-modal and include everything from cars and transit to within-district circulators and pedestrian facilities. Federal funding is not yet available for these projects, but he said that cities must begin planning for them now and preserving rights-of-way for when the money is available. If cities do not actively think ahead on this issue, he said the land will be developed and the projects will become “either more expensive or impossible.”

Lott said that he thinks Houston’s METRO is “doing the right thing” with its light rail system, but that this system will not be capable of carrying the full load of people to their final destinations in an effective way. He says that the “last mile” service that mini-metros could provide will be critical to the success of the entire transportation system.

Circulator systems within dense urban areas can be very expensive, says Lott, even compared to light rail, but, he says that cities will become more willing to pay for them as congestion increases. One fairly small system might cost $300 million. However, he points out that in Europe, smaller, fully-automated systems are now the norm, and that these systems are much cheaper to build, maintain, and operate.

During the question-and-answer session, one participant pointed out that a single freeway interchange can cost more than $300 million and said that the way that transportation funding is currently being allocated is a matter of choices and priorities, clearly not cost.

Another attendee asked Mr. Lott who he saw as the possible agency or agencies that would pay for, maintain, and operate such a system. Lott responded that these are major questions that will have to be worked out. He said he had no answers, but suggested that management districts might pay for and manage the smaller, “last mile” systems, and that larger transportation agencies like METRO might be in charge of the larger transit systems and underlying infrastructure.

(Photo credit: Joseph Madden, published under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license)

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