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.