Table of Contents


Welcome to the Metro Route Atlas's Articles section. Here we will provide long-form multi-part articles in the form of courses, with the aim of providing information on transportation planning and adjacent topics to our readers.

In contrast to the MRA's Blogs, which are more informal, opinionated, and poorly linked together, the Articles section aims to be sequential, structured, and cover topics with the assumption that the reader is unfamiliar with the topic matter. Our goal is for a public transportation enthusiast, policymaker unfamiliar with transportation planning, or other non-expert to gain a rudimentary level of understanding of a variety of transportation planning concepts, considerations, and features.

Disclaimer: The writer of these articles has no formal experience or training in the public transportation planning or urban planning fields and is writing exclusively off of observations, case studies, international best practice, and reference material. In addition, the content within these articles will be heavily biased towards a North American context and has not been thoroughly vetted by experts.

Public Transit 101

Public Transit 101 is our introductory course, providing a general overview of what public transit is, how it functions, and where it works best. All other courses and articles assume that you have read and are familiar with the content of these articles.

PT101 Part 1 • Introduction to Public Transit [Article Planned]

Public transit is fundamentally about transporting groups of people where they want to go. However, how this is done as well as how to do it most effectively depend on geography - both the physical geography of the environment in which the transit operates and that of the public transit network itself. In this article, we cover basic definitions relating to public transit, provide a brief discussion on how it works, describe its benefits and when and why to use public transit, and demonstrate examples of public transit done well.

PT101 Part 2 • Corridors, Networks, and Destinations [Article Planned]

An efficient public transportation network allows a user to conveniently and quickly get to where they need to go when they need to go. In this article, we discuss what constitutes a public transportation network, what makes an effective transit corridor, and the impact of station catchment areas (including walksheds and accessibility). We will discuss how different methods for feeding a transit network can increase ridership, including trunk-feeder networks, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, park and ride facilities, and transit-oriented development.

Introduction to Higher-Order Transit

In cities small and large, the answer to the question of how to move large numbers of people effectively along a corridor is higher-order transit. Whether by grade-separated metro, partially on-street light rail and streetcar, or by other modes such as bus rapid transit or mainline rail services in commuter, suburban, or regional form, higher-order transit plays a critical role in cities. Many cities can benefit from higher-order transit, regardless of whether they are growing, shrinking, or remaining stable in population.

In this course, we will explore the design of higher-order transit, from how to choose your corridor to how to choose the best mode to how to structure your services on your infrastructure. This will all be done with the key understanding that what is being built is a public transit network. However, we will cover the material with a twist - we will demonstrate best practices using examples of poorly planned, designed, and operated systems in order to show what went wrong and what we can learn from existing projects. This course will focus primarily on metro (heavy rail rapid transit), light rail, and bus rapid transit, as suburban and regional railways have different optimization criteria than urban rail systems. We will discuss other modes that excel in very specific circumstances such as gondola lifts when appropriate.

This course will be structured by breaking it into five units. First, we will cover Unit 1 (Fundamentals of Higher-Order Transit). After this, we will reverse the Organization before Electronics before Concrete maxim in order to focus on case studies in Unit 2 (Infrastructure), Unit 3 (Technology), and Unit 4 (Operations). Each of these will utilize the reversed order of the maxim in order to describe cases where focusing on cost-benefit analysis of cheaper alternatives can result in a better planned, more useful, and higher quality higher-order transit project. We will close by tying everything together in Unit 5 (Looking Ahead)

Unit 1 Part 1 • Introduction to Higher-Order Transit [Article Planned]

Higher-order transit is a vast space encompassing an expansive variety of modes, service styles, infrastructure, and operational considerations. In this first article, we will introduce the terminology of higher-order transit, including modes, operational styles, etc, and will lay the foundation for future articles in this series.

Unit 2 Part 1 • Choosing the (In)Correct Corridor [Article Planned]

Higher-order transit aims to provide high frequency and high quality service connecting major destinations along a corridor consistently throughout the day. In this article, we discuss what makes a good higher-order transit corridor, the types of higher-order transit corridors, as well as rights-of-way and the costs and benefits of different rights-of-way with regard to mode. We will discuss the pitfalls of placing transit where it is easy to put transit, lines to nowhere, and ways by which poorly located lines and stations can be improved after construction.

Unit 2 Part 2 • Stations I - Networks and Connections [Article Planned]

The nodes where users of a public transit system interact with it are the stations. Stations are more than just gateways to destinations, however - they also serve as transfer points between different lines, focal points for local communities, and more. In this article, we discuss the network effect, the price of missed transfers and lines that terminate right before a potential transfer station, and types of station design to facilitate the ease of transfers. We will discuss how poor planning can result in missed or excessively long transfers, as well as how stations can be designed to both minimize or maximize passenger frustration.

Unit 2 Part 3 • Stations II - Spacing, and Speed [Article Planned]

In the prior article, we discussed how stations function within a network. In this article, we discuss how stations function in their physical location, including the impact of one-way stations and stations split across parallel streets, and how station spacing impacts the speed at which a service is capable of operating. Note that discussions on express service will be reserved for Unit 4. We will discuss how misplaced stations can result in weaker access and/or poor rider comprehension of a network, and how stop consolidation can improve the attractiveness of a service by increasing its speed while simultaneously allowing for infrastructure investment to be focused on a smaller number of stations.

Unit 2 Part 4 • Grade Separation and Alignments [Article Planned]

Higher-order transit can run in a variety of configurations - underground, on elevated viaducts, at street level in various dedicated rights of way configurations and alignments, etc. Each of these has its benefits and downsides. In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of each of these, examples of suboptimal grade separation alternatives being chosen, as well as what happens when a line's ridership exceeds the physical design capacity of its level of grade separation and alignment.

Unit 2 Part 5 • Branches [Article Planned]

Branching and short turns are an integral part of designing a high capacity transit service. However, there are times when branching may not be the correct approach, and there are also branches that actively damage the throughput of a line. In this article, we discuss branches, interlining, shuttles, and reverse branches. We will discuss line throughput and the effect of branches on capacity, the way service impacts ripple across interlined networks, the pitfalls of designing a station with the assumption that it will always operate in its initially designed configuration, designing lines without the infrastructure to support short turns or handle disabled vehicles, and shuttle conversions for reverse branches.

Unit 2 Part 6 • Platform Design [Article Planned]

Platforms are an integral component of stations, as they are where vehicles are accessed. However, not all platforms are created equal. In this article, we discuss platform level boarding, curved platforms, and accessibility.

Unit 3 Part 1 • Choosing the (In)Correct Mode [Article Planned]

As we dive into the technology section of this course, we will begin with a discussion on mode. Sometimes, due to short-sighted planning decisions, political reasons, or any number of other reasons, the mode chosen for a service will prove to be suboptimal for the corridor. In this article, we perform an in-depth dive into mass transportation modes, including their comparative benefits and drawbacks. We will discuss gadgetbahns, lines built with far too little capacity, and the process of upgrading lines to higher standards.

Unit 3 Part 2 • Capacity: Intuition vs Reality [Article Planned]

How many people a transit service can carry is often not intuitive. Oftentimes, planning documents or proponents of gadgetbahns will cite numbers that ignore countless caveats. In this article, we discuss vehicle length, frequency, right-of-way design, and other factors that contribute to the capacity of a transit service. We will discuss the fallacy of 'longer trains = higher capacity' as well as how the true capacity of a line is rarely defined by its mode alone. Discussions on higher capacity rolling stock, electric traction, automation, and signaling will all be covered in greater depth in their dedicated sections within this unit.

Unit 3 Part 3 • Rolling Stock [Article Planned]

The vehicles a service uses can have a significant impact on how you build your infrastructure and design your services. In this article, we discuss details on rolling stock, including number of doors, high floor vs low floor interiors, and seating layout.

Unit 3 Part 4 • Powering Transit Vehicles [Article Planned]

How your vehicles are powered affects numerous aspects of operation and design. In this article, we discuss different power options (e.g. diesel, electric, hydrogen, cable), as well as different power delivery methods (e.g. overhead catenary, third rail, trolley wires, supercapacitors, batteries). We will discuss the tradeoffs of continuous electrification vs terminus or station only electrification, how new technologies allow for discontinuous electrification, and how choosing a power strategy that isn't compatible with your local climate can cripple your transit.

Unit 3 Part 5 • Signaling [Article Planned]

Signaling controls when your vehicles move, how far they can move, and how fast they can move. In this article, we discuss both road and rail signals, how road signal cycles directly impact the operations and capacity of bus rapid transit and light rail, and how modern communications-based train control (CBTC) signaling functions when compared to traditional rail block signaling. We will discuss how poorly designed signal phases can cripple the efficiency of surface transit, as well as how poorly planned rail signaling can restrict the maximum capacity of a rail line.

Unit 3 Part 6 • Automation, and Autonomous Vehicles [Article Planned]

Autonomous vehicles are a popular talking point, but autonomy and automation are two related but different concepts. In this article, we discuss full automation of partially or completely grade separated transit, including automatic train operation (ATO) and Grades of Automation (GoA), as well as decentralized automated vehicles and emerging applications in fixed guideway systems such as bus rapid transit and light rail. We will discuss the benefits and downsides of common proposals using autonomous vehicles such as platooning, dedicated pods, and a comparison of traditional Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) with autonomous vehicle technology.

Unit 4 Part 1 • Scheduling and Timetabling [Article Planned]

In the operations section of the course, we will be discussing different ways that operational choices made both during initial planning and the day-to-day impact transit operations. In this first section, we will cover scheduling and timetabling. In this article, we discuss headways, frequency, and how effective timetabling can make infrequent services both reliable and attractive to riders - and vice versa. We will discuss the downsides of peak-only service, how effective timetabling can allow for frequent service on single-tracked rights-of-way, and how services can be scheduled so confusingly or inconsistently that they seem less reliable and convenient than they actually are.

Unit 4 Part 2 • Limited and Express Service [Article Planned]

Oftentimes, the most effective way to be time-competitive with the personal automobile (as well as offer more convenient service in general) is to offer limited stop or express service. However, there are different ways of implementing such service, and contrary to what some may say, it is not strictly necessary to have a four track right-of-way to have express service. In this article, we discuss limited stop service, point-to-point express service, trunk-feeder networks, timed takeovers, skip-stop service, and service staggered in timetabling to provide express service by having an express catch up to the local in front.

Unit 4 Part 3 • Fare Payment [Article Planned]

In the majority of cases, public transit is a service that does not come for free. Therefore, fare payment and how it is handled is a necessary consideration for transit operators. That being said, there are a variety of different ways in which it can be achieved. In this article, we discuss front door payment, proof of payment, onboard fare validation, turnstiles, smartcards, open payment, and all-door boarding. We will discuss how proof of payment based systems can have significantly lower infrastructure costs than turnstile based systems, the tradeoffs in fare collection methods, how different fare payment methods impact operations and service throughput, and how handling of transfers impacts transit network efficiency.

Unit 4 Part 4 • Network Comprehensibility [Article Planned]

Imagine you are a new passenger to an unfamiliar transit network. Wayfinding, static and dynamic travel information, and how comprehensible the network is will all impact how you decide to get from A to B and whether or not you even consider transit as an option. In this article, we discuss the important of good network maps and wayfinding, the importance of up to date static and dynamic schedule and service disruption information, and the importance of not punishing riders for their mistakes.

Unit 4 Part 5 • Network Design and Connections [Article Planned]

We discussed network design and connections from a station perspective in an earlier article. In this article, we take a step back and look at a transit network more holistically - we will discuss network topologies, trunk and feeder systems, timed transfers, and other high level aspects of network design. We will discuss the benefits of radial vs grid networks for different types of higher-order transit, the strategies for trunk and feeder systems in both bus and rail systems as well as in bus rapid transit systems, and how timed transfers (or the lack of) can either increase the number of potential riders or actively damage ridership.

Unit 5 Part 1 • Looking Ahead [Article Planned]

To close out this course, we will briefly discuss everything we have covered so far, tie things together, and provide recommendations on future reading.