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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Giving new meaning to “green” transit

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 13, 2009

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One of the slides I've prepared for an upcoming presentation to the North Carolina chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects juxtaposes these two images to show how a trolley or light rail line might be made greener, literally:

  Muni line, San Francisco (by: Streetsblog)  design for the Atlanta Beltline (by: Atlanta Beltline) 

On the left are trolley tracks in San Francisco; on the right is a design for the proposed Atlanta Beltline project.

In the US, we tend to think of public transportation as inherently green, which of course it is compared to our addiction to driving.  It becomes even more so when old diesel buses are replaced with models running on natural gas, or even on the cleaner diesel engines of current technology.

But in Europe they are way ahead of us.  Check out these light rail lines in Strasbourg (left) and The Hague (right):

  light rail in Strasbourg (by: Ioan Barbulescu, creative commons license)  The Hague (by: rogiro, creative commons license) 

A couple of years ago, the British urban design magazine Monocle published an article (expensive subscription required!) highlighting 25 design examples of what, in their opinion, makes a city great.  I wasn't quite willing to shell out the $100 or so apparently required to access the article, but it was the subject of a story in the now-defunct International Herald Tribune.  Here's part of what the article had to say:

"It's not necessarily the billion-euro development, star-architect-designed gallery or shiny new ferris wheel that makes locals feel good about their town. Monocle believes that the measure of a city is more about everyday wonders - pavements, well-designed schools, punctual transport - rather than one-off, grand projects. Here's our list of the top 25 urban elements that make the city . . .

"There's something quite magical about watching trams in Barcelona, Strasbourg or Frankfurt glide silently along beds of grass as they do their city circuit. Where possible, this attractive combination of efficient public transport and inspired landscaping should be standard as part of the urban fabric . . ."

I wasn't able to track down the full text (all the old links to it are broken, no surprise), but here's part of it, and here is a bare-bones list of the 25 examples.

Some more images, from (I think) St. Etienne, left, and (definitely) Bilbao, right:

  giving new meaning to green (by:  Bilbao (by: Esti Alvarez, creative commons license)    

Green rail beds don't just soften the sometimes-harsh edges of the urban fabric; they also absorb stormwater and reduce the heat island effect that can come with asphalt and concrete (green roofs do the same).  Here are images from near Paris (left) and in Lyon (right):  

  outside Paris (by: Fanch, creative commons license)  Lyon (by: Tom Page, creative commons license)

I think this would be perfect for the new Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland, especially since there will be an adjacent bike/recreational trail in the corridor.  C'mon, planners, what do you think?

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.

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Richard LaymanApr 14 2009 11:59 AM

I mention this a bunch but only have a couple photos, from Paris and Barcelona. (And the St. Charles line in New Orleans.)

In my upcoming (sometime in a couple weeks) four part series on the transportation vision plan/wish list for DC, the first section on organizing principles has two relevant points, on integrating green infrastructure into transportation planning and on the idea of life cycle costing/100 year investments.

(the second section is on implementing principles, the third on what are the elements within a comprehensive transpo vision plan and the fourth is the collection of "wishes" sorted according to element.)

Kaid @ NRDCApr 14 2009 01:00 PM

I'll look forward to that, Richard. And to readers, I'll add that Richard's blog (click on his name above) takes a very thoughtful approach to these issues and frequently generates good conversation in the comments. Well worth checking out.

Peggy DrakeApr 14 2009 04:24 PM

My grandparents in the 1940's bought their first house across the street from a trolley line (now Pittsburgh's T - light rail transit). The single track had grass strips on either side, as it was in the median of a boulevard -- on a hill, so that the other side of the boulevard was at a lower elevation than the side where they lived. He and his neighbors chose to plant bushes and other ground cover in the median next to the tracks. By the time I came along in the 1950's, those bushes were taller than the height of the trolleys. That median became a community garden of sorts, not to grow fruits and veggies but rather to screen and muffle the sound of the trolleys/T cars. Those bushes and the median continue to be well-maintained to this day.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 14 2009 04:59 PM

Thanks for sharing that neat story. Does the T-line run beside the vegetation still, or was it relocated?

Mitch NussbaumApr 14 2009 06:05 PM

The St. Charles Ave. streetcar line in New Orleans runs mostly down a grass-covered median.

NathanaelApr 14 2009 06:47 PM

Grass track is also used in Kenosha, Wisconsin if I remember correctly.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 14 2009 06:50 PM

Those are terrific to hear about.

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