Friday, June 5, 2009

Conversation with a Rail Proponent from Texas

From time to time I receive thoughtful arguments about my posts. Craig, a senior attorney in Texas and I started conversing about the impacts of transportation on climate change. He remains a transit proponent (for now) and I remain a proponent of independence and automobility. Here is is our most recent exchange. Craig's part is first, and my response follows.

First of all, thank you so much for your reply. I have commented briefly below on your assertions.
I am really glad to hear from you. I have written to several other knowledgeable folks, but they are evidently very important and busy. In any case, I have read extensively in this venue, and have more than a few serious concerns. I would like to work them out, since more than one source predicts disaster. [He refers to global warming and its effects.]
If you would provide some clear evidence to guide me, I would be happy to change my mind about the future. I have a great deal of experience in travel, both in the US and in Europe, and in many American cities as well as cities in Europe. San Francisco, for instance, has the BART, which is used extensively and is dependable, safe and reasonably comfortable. Its major problem is crowding. They also have bus service that runs 24-7, at reasonable times. I was able to go anywhere in San Francisco during the middle of the day in about 10 minutes to 15 minutes, using mass transit. The same trip by car, because of parking problems, would take much longer, and cost much more.
Perhaps you have a problem with the cost of this sort of service. I do not. I know that taxes are a bit higher to cover the cost of transit. However, in San Francisco I did not need an automobile, and there was, believe me, a high net gain on the transaction. How is individual automobile travel going to overcome the problems that portend in the near and mid future, much less the longer range?
It just depends on your framing and viewpoint, I suppose. I have never viewed the automobile as anything more than a way to go from one place to another. It has no status value to me; I dislike the expense of purchasing it, the fact that I must transport 3000 pounds of vehicle to move 190 pounds of me, or that it creates pollution and is expensive to insure, service and fuel. I could live very well without an automobile. There are three reasons why mass transit does not work - it is not available/reliable, or it is not safe, or it is not comfortable.
Right now, I am not convinced that automobiles have much of a future. Please talk me down.
With great appreciation and interest,
Craig _________



As an engineer I must provide remedies based on the full set of realities in front of me and not on any behavioral or theoretical schemes for the future.

Indeed SF, Chicago and NYC are special cases of transit and as you pointed out, the reason is the real limitations in automobility, primarily the lack of space and/pricing of parking.

Once you move out of this "10%" you need to confront the remainder "90%" of America which is sprawl. Trains and buses are massively expensive and massively inconvenient in spread out places. I had no part in spreading out American cities but the same is true for suburban Paris, London, Athens or even Tokyo.

I stayed for a while at Saitama University. Saitama cannot be differentiated from Tokyo but you need one or two buses to get to any rail stations that take you to fun or important places in Tokyo. What a production and waste of time, but road capacity in Tokyo make this transportation arrangement necessary. But there is no parallel of this to Houston, LA, Atlanta, Honolulu or what I called above the 90% of America.

The worst part of mass transit is that outside of 4-5 hours of peak travel, buses and trains run near empty, and unions mandate double shifts, overtime, and on and on. We are talking about excessive human labor and energy waste. In contrast, an 100 mpg Prius descendant in 2025 is highly likely (the current Prius is far more efficient than any light rail) and any Prius like car is totally benign outside the 60-100 minutes of average daily use.

This comment of yours is both fundamental and spot on: There are three reasons why mass transit does not work - it is not available/reliable, or it is not safe, or it is not comfortable.

Here is my comment on these fundamentals of mass transit:

(1) Rail is not available, bus is not reliable. Except for a few multimillion population cities and Manhattan, rail stations are too far apart for most residents in most cities. Buses are caught in road jams so they are not reliable. Few cities are smart enough to develop HOT lanes with priority for buses along jammed segments.

(2) It is not safe. Indeed bus and rail stops are shelters for homeless and retail points for frugs and other contraband. Also rail systems provide quick getaways, so robberies around stations are many more than other parts of the same city (see Vancouver and Portland statistics.)

(3) Not comfortable. Problems abound from overcrowding, pushing, groping, bad smells, loud music, intimidating and unstable people and inability to carry American sized groceries and other shopping. There is reason why 95% of Americans abandoned buses and trains. And they are not going back.

Society seems to have progressed along technology paths and personal independence. Cultural and social revolutions have fallen flat on their face. History seems to repeat itself, so the future will form along paths of technology and independence, some of which we cannot even imagine today. After all, the car is only 100 years old, and roughly only 50 years old as an affordable transportation appliance. The computer and cellphone are roughly 20 years old. Who knows what it is is store of us 20 and 50 years forth. But buses are rails are not likely to determine anything essential in our lives.

All best,