Alternative Transit is more than High Speed Rail

Alternative Transit DiagramThe stimulus package has helped to renew consideration for updating our national rail system to include high speed trains, devoting $8 billion to funding new projects across the country. The desire for breaking into new territory is clearly there. Forty states have reportedly submitted $103 billion in requests for high speed rail funding (that is over 12 times the available pot.) However, unless we are complimenting these faster means of travel with smaller, more localized improvements to the network of alternative transit these dollars may be paying for a system with limited levels of efficiency.

These sleek trains that can travel in excess of 200 miles per hour are one of the more enticing visions of efficiency in bolstering alternative transportation in the country and limiting car and plane travel. Glances to European and Asian models give tantalizing possibilities of quicker commutes like traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours. Conventional wisdom pegs trains as far more fuel efficient than the energy required to fly a plane and within a radius of 600 miles, the train can actually be more convenient and faster when you factor in the arduous process of air travel (baggage, security, boarding, taxiing, deplaning.)

I am a complete supporter of high speed trains, but too many people are beginning to see them as the silver “bullet” for our travel woes and if they are not running between cities that have continued to build a network of alternative transit, their usefulness will be capped and keep us from the success that other countries have found.

Alternative transportation is an ecosystem of its own, encompassing every scale of travel from door to door. High speed rail is at the largest scale, great for covering large distances with as few stops as possible and performing well on a scale of transportation efficiency, but no matter what they are only part of the journey. Getting to and from the station in a sensible way is part of what makes the concept viable and attractive. Smaller, more localized systems must be installed to facilitate local access to high speed travel. Spending the money to connect cities without this infrastructure is jumping the gun.

Regional or commuter train lines offer the first level of integration of alternative transit, giving more people easy and cost-effective access to prime transport nodes of major cities. Unlike their high-speed brethren, these trains can make more local stops while still easily trumping the time and energy required of car travel. From there, local lines can take the form of subways, light rail or street cars that give easy maneuverability in urban settings and exponentially increase the amount of accessible destinations. Still further are bus and bike infrastructure that provide an efficient way for short, local trips while remaining efficient in both energy and space.

A true system that utilizes all of these components would drastically decrease the need, and convenience, of traveling by car—which is part of the idea. The more convenience that the system can sell, the more passengers will change their travel habits, allowing the cost of the service to drop, perpetuating the cycle.

Not transit programmed?

Our problem in America is that our cities (and perhaps more importantly, our suburbs) are not designed to accept these systems. The last half-century has been spent crafting our environment around car travel, making it no surprise that many people feel reluctant to consider alternatives. Most of our cities do not have these integrated systems, or even pieces of them, and remain slaves to roads, highways and viaducts. This is why some experts assert that, as of now, the Northeast is the only truly viable site for high speed rail where cities that have matured transit infrastructure can benefit. Having a high speed train stop in Los Angeles makes far less sense than one stopping in New York City.

Although I am a proponent for getting people to change, at a certain point the request becomes unreasonable if the extra effort is less convenient with no time saving and a higher cost. Critics of new rail systems point to existing infrastructure like Amtrak and its failed attempt to remain a profitable source of travel. The costs in construction and maintenance of railroads are extremely high and in a recession no one wants to sign onto a plan that will create black holes of tax dollars.

Their complaints are not entirely unfounded. Amtrak has yet to succeed in convincing enough people ride to keep the prices noticeably low, but what can we expect? As a country we have not succeeded in building our communities around alternative transport—we have not really tried. But if we are going to try then it has to be a holistic effort. That being said, the situation is improving. Amtrak has seen increasing record ridership for the past 6 years and running. The progress can be compliment by our cities, towns and suburbs being re-conceived with less deference given to automobiles. Picking the regions to receive funding for high speed projects could hinge on whether local municipalities can do parallel efforts to promote transit-oriented development on a local scale to increase the health of the entire network.

I am reminded of conservationist Willie Smits and his rebuilding of rain forests. As he explains, there is more to the forest than just the trees—an entire system at different heights, sizes and light levels that is mutually and intricately co-dependent. True rehabilitation efforts must address them all and alternative transit is no different.

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11 Responses to “Alternative Transit is more than High Speed Rail”

  1. If we had a massive build-out of transit without fixing the problem of how to get transit subsidies similar to the level that cars already enjoy, we could well see the new transit services dragging down the budgets of existing transit services.

    This is one of the reasons that advocates of sustainable transport across the board are so excited about the prospects for HSRail – since a well-chosen HSRail corridor can generate an operating subsidy, the capital subsidies for HSRail do not spill over to pressure on state and local transit budgets that are already faced with deep strains.

    And the notion that lack of transit at every HSRail station caps HSRail’s market potential – its really only at the main destination stations where that kicks in. For the main origin stations, its perfectly possible to access them by car. After all, airports around the country show that there really are people are willing to leave their car behind when making an interurban trip.

    • Bruce,

      I agree that part of the reason that we cannot share Europe’s dependence on alternative transit is that we are just not on board, and that includes funding like subsidies for large projects. At the same time, High Speed Rail in America faces a similar impasse as nuclear power in that this day in age, no one really knows how much it is going to cost. The proposed California line from Los Angeles to San Francisco has estimated costs upwards of $45 billion (this is for a train in excess of 200mph) but it could very well be more, we just do not know.

      For a moment let us assume they are right. This would mean that with stations, land, right of way, tracks and trains, the cost would be $130 million per mile. That buys twice as much in Light Rail ($40 – $65 million per mile), three times as much in street cars ($25 – $40 million per mile), about 260 hybrid-electric buses ($500,000 each) which for reference, is around 25% of New York City’s entire fleet. Balancing the cost/benefit of each of these options is important when we are talking about allocation billions of dollars. A truly massive infrastructure change for similar projects in other designated corridors like Florida, Chicago, Texas, Washington and the Northeast could be a national cost of half a trillion dollars.

      In order for people to even think about doing that, these systems have to work to their limit. Of course car access is possible, but it begins to contradict the goal of the project. No one is making money off what will be a public transportation project. This leaves the goal as being quicker trips while fundamentally decreasing car and plane travel in exchange for a more efficient means of energy usage. I would agree that while the destination cities (say Boston, New York and Washington D.C.) are the most important and deter the most plane traffic, access to intermediate stations would decrease more car commutes and only add ridership.

      As far as funding is concerned, I am also in favor of raising the gas tax. There are few quicker ways to discourage car travel while funding its replacement. Americans used somewhere in the neighborhood of 160 billion gallons of gas in 2008 which would mean every cent added to the tax (currently at 18.4) adds $1.6 billion in revenue.

  2. “Having a high speed train stop in Los Angeles makes far less sense than one stopping in New York City.”

    We’re talking stimulus funding here, the Northeast hasn’t got anything even close to shovel-ready. LA has a lot less local/regional connecting transit than NYC does, but it does have some. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the picture is already a bit better. In both cases, voters backed not just the $9.95 billion bond authorization for HSR + feeder services but also separate ballot initiatives for local/regional transit.

    I’d caution against positioning HSR corridors against one another as you have done. The objective for transit advocates should be to grow the pie. The only way to do that in Washington is to make sure multiple sensible projects around the country get funded. It’ll take a lot more than $8 billion to do that.

    For example, some tinkering with the NEC tracks and overhead catenaries will get you incremental improvements to Acela Express Service line haul times at an excellent cost/benefit ratio. Just don’t expect miracles.

    For a quantum leap in speed, you’d need a brand-new alignment. In practice, that could translate to hewing close to freeways and constructing detour tracks into city centers (cp. the direttissima concept used for HSR in Italy). If most of the route would have to be elevated anyhow, it might even make sense to consider maglev to minimize noise and vibration, especially on any new alignments above city streets on those detour tracks. Extremely expensive, yes. But in the Northeast, also extremely worthwhile.

    • Rafael, thanks for stopping by. Clearly, with so many people vying for stimulus funds, some choices have to be made as to who is the better bet at this stage of the game. I am not condemning California’s goal for high speed rail. The state is huge, and any efforts to bridge between its cities is a great initiative. However, we are also talking about a state that requested over half of the stimulus funds ($4.5 billion) when even paired with $10 billion does not get them halfway to the estimate $45 billion price tag, and this is a state government in virtual bankruptcy. I agree that the timeliness of construction should be a factor–the last thing we need is stimulus funds sitting idle, but overall feasibility has to play a part as well.

      My point was that a portion of money could be spent on localized, cheaper transit solutions for a city like L.A. in the interim that prepare it better to accept HSR passengers.

      I do remember reading an article that sounded similar to your assessment of the Northeast Corridor tracks–that the last large upgrade (ten years ago?) did not properly bevel the turns enough for sustained high speeds. The verdict seemed to be that minimal improvements could lower travel time marginally, but for a 2 hour trip from Boston to New York, though possible, jumps to the billions of dollars range. My searching has not found a cost attached to this. Does it mean that the NEC is a better recipient of stimulus funds where part of the goal is putting people to work? Maybe not, but I think Northeastern cities can benefit more from HSR connections because they have already developed existing networks of local transit.

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