Hit & Run

October 20, 2003

Top 10 Reasons to Forget Light Rail

This useful Arizona Republic op-ed deals with the Phoenix area, but it is obviously and easily applicable to a city near you.

Here's a different viewpoint, by the mayor of Phoenix, who actually invokes the "a great city needs a expensive public transportation boondoogle if it's really going to be a great city" cliche in making his case for light rail.

Posted by Nick Gillespie at October 20, 2003 12:30 PM
Comments

Yeah, but it gives the appearance of easing pollution and traffic. What else matters? I live in Boise, Idaho (pop. 200,000). We have a bus system nobody rides. Our mayor used that success story as a springboard to push for light rail. He got shot down, and now faces felony charges for misusing public funds on an unrelated matter. If only all public transportation boondoggles had such happy endings.

Posted by: Kevin on October 20, 2003 01:37 PM

Why is that in Europe that we can have very highly used public transportation, as well as super-freeways? No one ever calls the TGV for example a boondoggle; it has high ridership, and while it is a state-run company, it is well liked in France for its speed and effeciency.

Posted by: Jean Bart on October 20, 2003 01:45 PM

Aquinas wrote " An object is neither good nor evil, but becomes so through its use."

Why this obsession with bashing this technology?

Posted by: joe on October 20, 2003 01:46 PM

It also gives them a good opportunity to:

1)Raise taxes, something all politicians love.
2)Hand out lucritive construction contracts to well-connected contractors and other various supporters whose palms need greasing.
3)Shit on their opponents by witholding above mentioned largesse.

I could think of others, but I am at work afterall and don't have time.

Posted by: bennett on October 20, 2003 01:48 PM

Why is that in Europe that we can have very highly used public transportation, as well as super-freeways?

Because Europe is much smaller and more compact and dense than America, lending itself much more readily to public/mass transit.

Because European cities are older than American cities, and are much more of a pre-automotive era design and construction. They simply lack the infrastructure for heavy automotive traffic, and consequently are forced to rely on mass transit.

Because Europeans are more habituated to the limitations of mass transit (queuing in lines, conforming to someone else's schedule, not taking more than you can easily carry, etc.).

Posted by: R. C. Dean on October 20, 2003 01:59 PM

joe,

I would say that there is some deep cultural mistrust of public or mass transportation in the US; but clearly this is not true - Americans use airplane travel more than Europeans do, and of course there is a long history of rail travel in the US (in the 1930s American went through a rage for luxurious train travel for example, and this continued after WWII into the 1950s).

Posted by: Jean Bart on October 20, 2003 01:59 PM

Why use the loaded term "bashing"? Are the arguments against light-rail in the linked article not sound? If so, tell us why.

Yes, my earlier comments were cynical because I let my feelings about gov't in general color them. However, if light rail is a real solution to a real problem, I have no problems with it. As I have seen it in the cities I have lived in, and also reading about other cities, it seems to me that the costs far outweigh any benefits, and they become monumental wastes of money. And not just in one-time construction cost either.

Posted by: bennett on October 20, 2003 02:00 PM

JB,

Because here in the land of the free market, zoning laws rarely allow development to occur at the level of density required to make rail transit economically viable. American cities built before the government decided to impose car culture (Boston, Chicago, NYC, Washington) have very successful transit systems.

Posted by: joe on October 20, 2003 02:03 PM

R.C. Dean,

Those arguments would make sense if countries like France didn't also create a freeway system that rivals what the US has in quality and the like.

I do find the compactness issue a little more compelling however; but even at that, that wouldn't explain the popularity of rail from Berlin to Rome for example.

You might also find it interesting to note that transportation wise, Europe has always had an advantage on the rest of the continents - our rivers and such allow for a speed of transport that continents like Asia and the Americas were only able to compete with the coming of rail lines.

Posted by: Jean Bart on October 20, 2003 02:03 PM

As in the Simpsons,

MONORAIL!

Posted by: mike on October 20, 2003 02:07 PM

bennett, please read Gillespie's post. He does not argue against light rail in Phoenix. He universalizes his opposition ("easily applicable to a city near you"), which is the basis of my objection. I believe some light rail projects make sense, and others don't. I don't believe I've ever seen a kind word written about any transit in this space.


Posted by: joe on October 20, 2003 02:14 PM

JB - there are also more cars per capita in Germany than in America, as well as a grade A highway system, yet they boast a very efficient and popular transit system as well.

It's all about development patterns.

Posted by: joe on October 20, 2003 02:21 PM

Come up with a way to make transit pay for itself and I won't oppose it. I am even a railfan. A recent tax increase in the South Bay was going to bring BART to San Jose [while taxing most of us, who would get zero benefit from it]. With the new ecnomy, the earliest BART would get there was 2026. If BART motormen did not make airline pilot wages, and if every car were not special made, and if the total cost was borne by those benefitted, go ahead.

Posted by: Gene 6-Pack on October 20, 2003 02:30 PM

What's really hillarious is that there is a light rail proposal on the ballot next month for Tucson, as well, which has a population distribution almost identical to Phoenix but is about 1/4 of the population and area.

Even better, there is a substantial population of people who would be very likely to use light rail--off-campus U of A students--but the proposed line doesn't go anywhere near most of the neighborhoods in which they tend to live, except for the ones so close to campus that they could walk anyway.

Nor does the rail go anywhere near the city's NW side, which is where the worst traffic congestion is.

As has been pointed out, it seems that the American cities that would benefit the most from a rail system already have them.

Posted by: Brian Hawkins on October 20, 2003 02:37 PM

Try using mass transit to take the kids to soccer practice, pick up the dry cleaning, and get dinner in any sort of timely fashion.

As an aside, I've worked for employers who would not hire people who did not have their own cars. They didn't consider the busses to be flexible enough when creating schedules for employees each week.

Posted by: Madog on October 20, 2003 02:46 PM

I'll admit light-rail projects are often (not always) boondoggles. But I'd suspect that the same percentage of road construction projects are the boondoggles as well. Try the Elgin-O'Hare expressway in the Chicago area, a road that goes to neither Elgin nor O'Hare. Even the tollways around here are a huge pork-fest.

Or how about the Dan Ryan Expressway re-surfacing project from a few years ago that was subject to a specific asphalt mix thanks to the good 'ol government... an asphalt mix that was so bad the entire stretch of the road south of the express lanes was nothing but potholes for an entire winter, avg. speed 10 mph during non-rush periods.

Posted by: Russ D on October 20, 2003 02:58 PM

Japan is an interesting case where nobody drives because everybody drives. It has an amazingly efficient rail system (compared to Amtrak; I don't have any experience with euro rail)that I used for everything so as to avoid highly annoying car rides.

It is an interesting business model. The Kintetsu rail line is owned by the Kintetsu department store. At every major stop, you walk through a Kintetsu market or department store (or maybe catch a Kintetsu Buffaloes baseball game) to get to your train, and then again when you get off. That is four guaranteed passes each working day. This only works because the government is totally in bed with the huge companies (saibatsu, I seem to recall them called), and they back the investment with interest free loans and all sorts of goodies.

I found living by the train interesting. For example, I had absolutely no idea what the geographical layout of the city of Osaka was unless it was in relation to a subway line, even though I lived there for two years. You walk the distance between stations, but most of the time you disappear underground and reappear elsewhere.

Also, I found at the end of my stay that there were a great number of things I had never seen simply because they weren't on train lines. It was a big deal to transfer to that third line that goes 'out in the sticks', but I never went anywhere not connected by the lines.

Japanese people shop more frequently and buy less each time due to the size constraints of the preferred mode of transport. Consequently, most refrigerators over there are of the college dorm room variety.

It is a pretty radical change, and I can definitely see the appeal to the politbureau types. My $.02 is that as long as people are willing to fund the thing voluntarily and let it die if it can't float itself, more power to ya.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on October 20, 2003 02:58 PM

I do find the compactness issue a little more compelling however; but even at that, that wouldn't explain the popularity of rail from Berlin to Rome for example.

Don't look at Berlin and Rome. Look at Berlin, Rome, and all the cities and towns in between. With the exception of the Northeast Corridor, in which rail travel is already extremely popular, America doesn't have that kind of density. Hence, two cities separated by the same distance as Berlin and Rome are served better by air than by rail.

Posted by: digamma on October 20, 2003 02:59 PM

joe:

"It's all about development patterns."

And tax dollars, and frequency of emminent domain claims.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on October 20, 2003 03:01 PM

Hah, Russ... in Illinois, "test pavement" is never good. Also, help a downstater out... when did the Calumet Expressway get renamed the Bishop Ford?

In other news, this summer the Eads Bridge in St. Louis was reopened to automobile traffic (it'd been closed for about 15 years, but the Metrolink used it when they built the extension to the Illinois side.) It's a neat bridge, and all, but there's no particularly good way to get to it from I64/70/55 if you want to avoid the traffic mess that is the MacArthur Bridge.. the only non-interstate bridge that is actually useful is the MLK Bridge.

Oh, speaking of St. Louis, and boondoggles, the Mid-America Airport is a transportation boondoggle by air. You Chicagoans would be wise to look at its example when anybody mutters anything about putting another airport way out in Peotone.

Posted by: Steven Crane on October 20, 2003 03:05 PM

This post is exactly right. It sounds like Phoenix is a lot like KC. Politicians and simpleminded journalists lament that their city isn't as sophisticated as another city, cuz the other city has a light rail system. So, we should install a very expensive light rail line to keep up appearances or keep up with the Jones's (or the St. Louis's). I don't have a philosophical bias against rail or anything, but I do know that in a city like KC, rail would fail. No one who has a car would ride it. I believe gas would have to be about $10 a gallon for people to think about transit. I do however strongly support public transit for the benefit of the people who use it. The government has a responsibility to make sure people can get around even if they don't have a car or can't drive. That means lots of buses on frequent schedules, serving all parts of a metro area. In KC the bus system is very weak and underfunded. Many bus stops don't even tell you which buses stop there. And one time I waited for a bus that never came, only to find out the ATA had cancelled the route some months before. But people who never ride the bus, and have no intention of ever using anything other than their car to get around, lecture and whine that KC doesn't have a light rail system. They don't want it to benefit the people who need transit; they want it so they can feel the warm of self-importance of living in a town with light rail.

Posted by: No. 9 ain't-a-runnin' on October 20, 2003 03:06 PM

This post is exactly right. It sounds like Phoenix is a lot like KC. Politicians and simpleminded journalists lament that their city isn't as sophisticated as another city, cuz the other city has a light rail system. So, we should install a very expensive light rail line to keep up appearances or keep up with the Jones's (or the St. Louis's). I don't have a philosophical bias against rail or anything, but I do know that in a city like KC, rail would fail. No one who has a car would ride it. I believe gas would have to be about $10 a gallon for people to think about transit. I do however strongly support public transit for the benefit of the people who use it. The government has a responsibility to make sure people can get around even if they don't have a car or can't drive. That means lots of buses on frequent schedules, serving all parts of a metro area. In KC the bus system is very weak and underfunded. Many bus stops don't even tell you which buses stop there. And one time I waited for a bus that never came, only to find out the ATA had cancelled the route some months before. But people who never ride the bus, and have no intention of ever using anything other than their car to get around, lecture and whine that KC doesn't have a light rail system. They don't want it to benefit the people who need transit; they want it so they can feel the warm of self-importance of living in a town with light rail.

Posted by: No. 9 ain't-a-runnin' on October 20, 2003 03:06 PM

"America doesn't have that kind of density."

Chicken egg

Posted by: joe on October 20, 2003 03:08 PM

Re rail differences in the US vs. Europe, a few points:

--yes, some density differences may be an artifact of zoning restrictions and government favoritism toward highways, but we'd probably have more low-density regions, and more car culture, than Europe even without said restrictions. We've got lots of places with large quantities of cheap land and no natural barriers to expansion, and lots of people who really want to live in low-density, car-requiring environments. Supply and demand.

--short- to medium-distance rail transit does exist, and is pretty good, in the one area of the country with pop. density similar to that of Europe, namely the Northeast Corridor. But the cities in that region were built at high density not before "the government decided to impose car culture", but before affordable, reliable cars *existed*. The fact that people will choose high density freely when they *don't have* the car option does not imply that they'll still choose high density when they do.

--long-distance rail transit (or for that matter long-distance car transit) is not so attractive when the distances are *really* long and air travel is an alternative. The heyday of American trains came before transcontinental jet flights were possible.

--the fact that some European countries have both good highways and good mass transit is not really relevant. Good highways are worth having at *any* population density; mass transit is much more worth having at high densities.

Furthermore, even if you think mass transit is a good idea, you may still favor buses over light rail for a variety of reasons: flexible routes, ability to use the existing road system, low cost of incremental additions of service, etc. To give an example of an area where I've lived: the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, a classic low-density sprawl, has had a downmarket but quite effective bus system for some time. This is now going to be supplemented, for no particularly urgent reason, by a light rail line which is useless to most non-tourists and which requires a huge and extremely ugly elevated track system. I can't see how this can possibly be an efficient way of meeting whatever transit demand they may think they have.

Posted by: Nicholas Weininger on October 20, 2003 03:08 PM

Posted by #9 at 3:06 pm: [i]"government has a responsibility to make sure people can get around even if they don't have a car or can't drive."[/i]

Wow.

Posted by: Alton on October 20, 2003 03:18 PM

Sure looks like Mr. Mayor has got his talking points down pat. This tired boilerplate has been resurrected time and time again.

-He raises the boogeyman of intractable gridlock, as if people and businesses will sit and let their lives go to hell without the guidance of enlightened planning

-The chestnut of replacing a "freeway" worth of traffic during rush hour. Freeway lanes can carry up to 2,200 cars an hour before hitting their breakpoint. Light Rail can certainly physically carry that amount, but in practice this physical limitation is rarely achieved.

-Hyping the "success" of a public transit system that carries less than a fraction of commuter travel. (

-The Keynesian "economic stimulus" that will result from digging holes and filling them back in again

And what is it with the damn rail fetish anyway? There is nothing Light Rail can do that a well designed Busway can't except get politicians re-elected.
In a utopian, dynamic, deregulated transport-land-use market, buses would be much better suited to respond to changing demand and commuting patterns than fixed-guideway systems like light rail.

Posted by: Jay on October 20, 2003 03:24 PM

I agree that the "we need a rail line to be a real city" idea is stupid. It should be "we need to be a real city in order to need a rail line."

Posted by: joe on October 20, 2003 03:25 PM

Mr. Crane:

The Calumet Expy got renamed about 8 years ago or so. Of course, that depends on which leg of the road you're talking about. Only the I-94 part was renamed.

What a fine stretch of road the Cal- er, I mean Bishop Ford Freeway is (and since when did we start calling them freeways in Chicago, anyway?). After you get past the potato chip factory, try not to breathe for the next 10 miles. There's the paint factory (where I used to work), all the trucks merging at 130th street at 55 mph (never get in the right lane unless you have to!), Mount Trashmore (the world's largest toxic dump, come by when they're burning off the methane!), Lake Calumet (help preserve the wildlife!), and the Calumet River, the filthiest river in town (right by my childhood home). Take the Ford Fwy on your way to the Borman Expressway, under construction 362 days a year. It's "Hell On Earth!"

Posted by: Russ D on October 20, 2003 03:28 PM

joe:

"I agree that the "we need a rail line to be a real city" idea is stupid. It should be "we need to be a real city in order to need a rail line.""

I don't follow. Why is a rail line an end? Why should the choices of people to have back yards be placed under the planner's desire to lay rail, as it were? You don't build infrastructure to control people, you build it to meet their desires.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on October 20, 2003 03:36 PM

Joe, perhaps a piddling point here, but Germany does not have a higher per capita ownership of passenger vehicles. For whatever it's worth.

Florida's misguided few wish a light rail system on the Central region of this state. The projected cost was (if I remember correctly) into the billions.

Posted by: Hatfield on October 20, 2003 03:36 PM

Jason, now that I look at it, "in order to" is ambiguous. I didn't mean "so that we would" need a rail line. More like "before we" need a rail line.

Hatfield, I think the numbers I saw were for West Germany. Incorporating the poorer east would tend to bring them down. But in either case, the numbers are very close, and demonstrate that cars vs. rail is a false choice.

Posted by: joe on October 20, 2003 03:46 PM

The cost in Seattle for *14* miles of light rail is into the billions, as well. The plans call for it to stop about a mile short of the airport. Fortunately, the US Senate killed the federal funding for now, and it's on hold. This likely only means that it will cost more, as planners sit around replanning on the public dime for the next few years, waiting for the Democrats to regain control of the appropriations comitee.

Americans prefer cars because they are better by any measure you can think of as transportation. How many people (besides joe) kept taking the school bus after they had access to a car to drive them to school? Can you create better public transit than that? Door to door service scheduled exactly when it needs to be. I don't even remember having to sit next to anyone who reeked of urine.

Posted by: JDM on October 20, 2003 03:48 PM

"But in either case, the numbers are very close, and demonstrate that cars vs. rail is a false choice."

What are you talking about? More money for feel good rail means less money for roads and everything else.

Posted by: JDM on October 20, 2003 03:51 PM

The bottom line is a light rail system is really a great way to get masses of people to and from the publically financed sports stadium or convetnion center.

Posted by: StMack on October 20, 2003 03:51 PM

One additional difference between mass transit in Europe and the US: European countries have MUCH higher fuel taxes--what the average American pays for a gallon of fuel will get the average European less than a liter. With fuel costs at that level, I couldn't afford to drive 110-mile round-trip commute I make 4 days a week (my current vehicle gets over 30 mpg), and mass transit would look much more attractive.

Posted by: on October 20, 2003 03:56 PM

JDM has concluded that it is more convenient to drive than to take public transit in an area where the layout was desinged around driving.

Let me be the first to say, well, DUH!

Try driving to your doctor's appointment on Manhattan.

Posted by: joe on October 20, 2003 04:00 PM

When did Yogi Berra get elected mayor of Phoenix?

"Nobody wants to go to Phoenix anymore. It's too crowded."

Posted by: on October 20, 2003 04:21 PM

Many people in this thread have commented on the fact that the Northeast Corridor is the only viable light-rail in the US. I question even that statement. I believe that the NC includes Metro-North and LIRR. Both of these lines are heavily subsidized. My monthly from CT to NYC is currently $225. I think it would be well over $300 if it wasn't subsidized. If I was paying full fare, I would reconsider both where I work and where I live.

Posted by: MP on October 20, 2003 04:50 PM

MP, those are generally considered commuter rail and not light-rail.

What would gasoline cost if it wasn't subsidized by our defense department? What would roads cost if they were only covered by user fees? The subsidies are ALL OVER THE PLACE, passenger rail ain't the only one.

Posted by: on October 20, 2003 05:06 PM

joe,

I've also concluded it's better to drive in an area where the layout was designed for driving than to take transit in an area designed for transit, which is the important consideration. Nevermind that it's better to drive in areas which bureaucrat busibodies are doing their best to make driving miserable as a stated goal.

Also, transit is subsidized at 74 cents per passeger-mile, whereas highways are subsidized at 3.2 cents per pasenger-mile, 3 cents of which is paid for by gas taxes and tolls.

MP,

The NE corridor is also not *light* rail. Does anyone have an example of modern light rail (like the kind they built in Portland and Tacoma and are trying to build everywhere else) that has made sense?

Posted by: JDM on October 20, 2003 05:08 PM

For the rail illiterate like myself, what is the difference between light rail and other rail?

Is it light use? Low tensile strength?

Posted by: Jason Ligon on October 20, 2003 05:12 PM

Jason,

Light Rail (LRT) is distinguishable from Heavy Rail (aka Metro, Subway, Tube) in terms of its generally lower frequency, longer spacing between stations, shorter train lengths and lower average system speed. Heavy Rail tends to be almost fully grade-separated (i.e. above or below ground, and no signalized junctions with surface roadways) A lower order of magnitude if you will.
Commuter rail is similar to heavy rail in terms of equipment, but serves a broader, region-wide commuter shed, and travels longer distances between pickup and dropoff.

Man, I love these Rail/Road pissing matches!

Posted by: Jay on October 20, 2003 05:31 PM

Yeah, what's the difference between light rail, commuter rail, and so forth?

As to "And what is it with the damn rail fetish anyway? There is nothing Light Rail can do that a well designed Busway can't except get politicians re-elected. "
Well, speaking as a periodically frustrated commuter, there is something nice with meeting up with a sleek train within a reasonable few minutes of a designated time, hopping on board and enjoying grade crossing right-of-way to my destination. Busses can still get stuck in expressway slow-downs.

I happen to work in an office building that was formerly a tire factory on a Lehigh Valley RR freight line in suburban Philadelphia. There is "Regional Rail" stop one block from this building. It's damn convenient for days I decide I can't deal with driving. If I don't blow the connection, it's faster than driving too.

Given my current work and living situation, it'd be rational for me to sell my car and take the train. I just have to overcome the emotional attachment to the RAV4.

Posted by: Keith on October 20, 2003 05:33 PM

Correction: LRT generally has shorter spacing between stations, hence lower average operating speed.

Posted by: Jay on October 20, 2003 05:34 PM

"But in either case, the numbers are very close, and demonstrate that cars vs. rail is a false choice."

Only when budgets are financed out of taxes is it not necessary to choose between two means of accomplishing the same ends.

It is interesting to me that, out of all the studies and analysis mentioned above, not a single person can put any data on the table that would indicate that passenger rail is cheaper or more efficient than cars for moving people around in American cities. If anyone is aware of a situation where light rail moves more people for less money than the roadways, please fill us in.

I had a much longer post all scoped out, but then Mr. Weidinger went and said it all for me.

Posted by: R. C. Dean on October 20, 2003 06:07 PM

I happen to work in an office building that was formerly a tire factory on a Lehigh Valley RR freight line in suburban Philadelphia. There is "Regional Rail" stop one block from this building.

Which stop? I'm pretty sure SEPTA's Regional Rail is built entirely on the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads. The closest SEPTA gets to ex-LV rails is Doylestown, and it's still quite a few miles away.

Posted by: digamma on October 20, 2003 07:03 PM

St. Louis' Metrolink is built on old Wabash Railway ROW through the city (the Delmar Ave station IS the old Wabash station). I'm not sure whose ROW it uses on the Illinois side of the river.. but the important thing is the ROW was already there and they didn't have to muscle all kinds of people out of the way with eminent domain.

Also, the LIRR also has the New York and Atlantic RR (freight only) to balance the books a little.

Russ, my extended family is South Siders-all, but they live in the civilized lands off I-57 at 147th Street.

Posted by: Steven Crane on October 20, 2003 07:40 PM

Boston, not a great example – the MBTA (local transit is patronage heaven) and the commuter rail is being expanded without the local communities approval. The cost is something like $100,000.00 per rider – hell just buy them all Hummers.

Posted by: Tom on October 20, 2003 07:52 PM

Mr. Crane:

Ol' Sibley Blvd. You know, I wouldn't exactly call that area "civilized", there's lots of wild dogs living at the abandoned Dixie Square Mall over by there. Most of my family lives west on 159th.

Speaking of eminent domain, I recall the hundreds of miles of private property captured by eminent domain to build most of the expressways in Chicago. (The Calumet was the first expressway in Chicago and beingthe vast wasteland there, I don't recall that being much of a displacement issue.) That all cost a pretty penny, not just in buying off the prooperty (much of it was considered slums in those days anyway) but in relocating those residents into the lovely 12-story projects that ran alongside the new expressways. We're all still paying for those mistakes.

I don't understand why people make this whole thing an either/or issue. Individual transit is a good idea AND mass transit is a good idea. Ride Chicago's L down the expressways; sometimes it's faster than the automobiles, sometimes the automobiles are faster than the L. Neither option is necessarily better than the other ALL the time.

The rough annual costs of owning and operating a car, assuming 12,000 miles a year (and most people are doing about 18,000 a year these days), is about 5K. The only way you can really reduce that significantly is by keeping your car longer, kind of tought to do the more miles you drive it. Assuming mass transit was privatized (which would at least double the fares), and I took cabs or rented a car when I needed the convenience, my annual transportation costs to go car-free would be about 10 percent less. Obviously most people are willing to pay the extra 10 percent for the greatly added convenience of using their own car all the time, though to me the total cost/benefit is about equal. To each his own. I've actually determined that if I use public transit to go to work whenever I can, and only use my car for trips over 2 miles one-way, I am probably spending only about 3.5K/year on transportation. The wild-card in all this is the value each person places on "convenience", which certianly depends on where you live, work, etc. My point in this is that "doing the math" is one hugely biased activity by everyone. So I doubt that 3.2 cents/mile road subsidy someone mentioned earlier, especially since the tollway system in IL is at least 5 cents/mile and the tollway wants to jack that up to 10 cents.

Posted by: Russ D on October 20, 2003 09:22 PM

There's also the millions of Illinois residents who don't use the tollways at all. I haven't been on one since last November.

Posted by: Steven Crane on October 20, 2003 09:34 PM

Individual transit is a good idea AND mass transit is a good idea.

Well, in very narrow circumstances light rail may be a "good" idea, good meaning as cost-effective as individual transit. The problem is that the vast majority of transit projects are (a) not cost-effective and (b) being built with tax dollars.

If the light rail projects were private, I doubt anyone here would complain. If they were cost-effective, the complaining would be more muted (although there would still be bitching about taxes being used). Put the two together, and in most communities it is very difficult to make a case for light rail or commuter rail.

These are vanity projects being financed out of your pockets to make a narrow class of politicians and greens feel good about themselves. They can feel good about themselves on their own damn dime, as far as I am concerned.

Posted by: R C Dean on October 21, 2003 07:42 AM

joe: "...the government decided to impose car culture."

Gene 6-pack: "Come up with a way to make transit pay for itself and I won't oppose it."

Russ D: "I'll admit light-rail projects are often (not always) boondoggles. But I'd suspect that the same percentage of road construction projects are the boondoggles as well."

These three quotes are key to the issue. Rail proponents have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of "free marketeers" who condemn light rail, Amtrak, etc., as subsidized boondoggles, while largely passing over the role of the State in creating the automobile-highway-industrial complex (or the civil aviation system, which is even more a pure creation of the state).

But the solution is not giving rail a bigger share of the loot, or creating an equal opportunity system of subsidized boondoggles. It's to consistently apply the same anti-subsidy principles to highways, cars and trucks that libertarians apply to rail.

To take joe's example, do away with zoning prohibitions on dense or mixed-use development, so the true market incentives for people to live close to where they work and shop are not concealed by subsidies. Stop subsidizing suburban sprawl by providing utilities to new developments below cost at the expense of old neighborhoods. Stop FHA discrimination against urban house-buying.

Posted by: Kevin Carson on October 21, 2003 11:41 AM

Russ,

The 3.2 cents is from RPPI.org. There's lots of good information there. I don't know about the specific case of Illinois, but the normal course would be for the 5 or 10 cent/mile tolls to pay for the roads, the buses and the El. That's the case with the gas taxes in Washington and California. Though maybe the degree of graft on road projects around Chicago makes the roads there more expensive.

Kevin,
Believe me I'd be happy with less zoning everywhere. I couldn't be happier if joe is right, and the new urbanists are forcing people into cities coincidentally with the actual will of the people they are forcing. If the zoning regulations all came down and every other person on earth dedided to stack themselves onto the same acre of land, it just means there's less demand, and cheaper land for me.

You neglected to mention the largest factor by far in home prices in my area - the government's reluctance to allow development to occur. Both through the law and through bureaucratic hold up of new building permits. I suspect at the end the new urbanists will admit they aren't for a free market, just removing the regulations hurting the type of development they prefer, and leaving the ones hurting the development they do not.

Posted by: JDM on October 21, 2003 01:27 PM

I have read down through the entire thread. Did I miss any mention of PRT (Personal Rapid Transit)? This was also on the table for Phoenix, Tucson (see http://www.tucsonprt.com/), San Jose/BART-linkup (see http://www.electric-bikes.com/bart.htm), and several other communities that either have or are considering light rail. What happened to the PRT proposals?

PRT provides small cars, suitable for individuals or very small groups. You board at one station, and are transported, directly and non-stop, to your selected destination station, using a special guideway (that is usually elevated in urban or suburban areas). The various stations are usually small, and all are "offline," so that through-traffic doesn't have to pass through them (or stop behind other traffic that is already parked for loading or unloading, as is generally the case with subway-style rail or light rail). There are no drivers; all transport functions are fully automated; the system can operate 24 hours per day.

Simulations indicate that even surge traffic (rush hour, incoming or outgoing crowds from concerts and sporting events, etc.), could be well served by PRT, with people waiting no more than five minutes for a car and most waiting fewer than 30 seconds or not at all.

PRT has been described as a "horizontal elevator," and as an alternative roadway system for automated taxicabs. All the best estimates I have seen so far indicate that a PRT system can be built at a fraction of the cost of conventional rail or light rail (e.g., $10M/mile of guideway, including cars and stations, vs. $30-40M/mile for light rail), and operated at a profit, assuming fares that are comparable to the common run of bus or train fares.

Variations on or ancestors of the PRT theme have been tried in the past. For example, Morgantown WV has had a "GRT" -- Group Rapid Transit -- for several decades. The Morgantown GRT (see http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/morg.htm) demonstrates some but not all of the characteristics of modern PRT approaches. A prototype of a PRT-variant system called ULTRA (see http://www.atsltd.co.uk/) recently finished successful passenger tests in Cardiff, Wales, UK, and is in the process of gaining funding for further development. The prototype car for Minnesota's "Skyweb Express" was among the most popular "rides" at the recent Minnesota State Fair (see http://www.skywebexpress.com/).

In all the reading I have done about PRT, I have come to the conclusion that it has the potential to supplant the personal automobile in many (but not all) areas and for many (but not all) purposes. This is, of course, at the cost of constructing an alternative system of roads on (mostly elevated) guideways. Normally, I would scoff at the proposal to create an alternative network of roads; private turnpikes haven't been that successful, after all. What puts PRT in striking distance of practicality, as I see it, is the relative inexpensiveness and unobtrusiveness of the infrastructure, especially for the multiple benefits gained: for the most part, PRT stations have small footprints, and PRT guideways can be strung pretty much anywhere, alongside (or through!) buildings, and even along what are, in essence, reinforced lampposts (replacing lampposts that are already planned or in place). Construction can be relatively quick, without the intrusiveness or extreme disruption of street traffic and business that we commonly associate with subway/rail/LRT construction.

So the question is, why hasn't anyone actually constructed a detailed scale model, or even a full-scale pilot system, just to test out the more attractive claimed benefits of the approach? Why aren't more people at least talking about proving or disproving PRT in a definitive way? It's a mystery to me. Anyway, they're currently discussing the idea for Seattle/Tacoma (see http://www.gettherefast.org/); I hope it can get some traction there. Speaking for myself, I would love to be able to be "chauffered" around my area in privacy and comfort to run errands; even better if I could negotiate my 33-mile one-way daily commute in that fashion. I love to drive, but these days, mostly for adventure and fun. For the routine stuff, and especially during rush hour or in other high-traffic circumstances, I'd much prefer to be a passenger so that I could arrive relaxed, rested, and poised. It would cost too much and be too disruptive to have regular trains or light rail go everywhere; buses are not an attractive choice, either. "Multi-modal" transit schemes, with their multiple transfers and delays are also very unattractive. Yet the personal car has major downsides, too, which I curse daily. PRT promises to deal with many problems of those several transportation alternatives, while combining many of their benefits. I know that a practical system won't be a perfect panacaea for our transport ills (e.g., at the expected 30-40 mph operating speed of PRT, even a non-stop commute to work would last, for me, as long as or longer than my worst automotive commute; so quick-commuting would not be a benefit for me -- I'd have to be satisfied with other benefits). The important thing, however, is to understand with the real plusses and minuses are: to characterize the transit approach and understand where it can be a solution and where it should be avoided. If we don't start getting serious about investigating PRT and other alternative transit proposals with the goal in mind to generate that kind of knowledge, I think we will continue to keep spinning our wheels -- literally!

Posted by: James Merritt on October 21, 2003 02:20 PM

James Merrit,

Could it be done on existing rights of way, without the use of eminent domain power? If so, and if it could indeed be undertaken by voluntary private means, I definitely like the sound of it.

Posted by: Kevin Carson on October 21, 2003 02:34 PM

James Merritt,

PRT looks like a reasonable alternative to light rail as a mode of urban transport, but looks to be less attractive as a long haul commuter technology. The major advantage is in the number of cars per hour the computer scheduling allows to pass along the rail. The disadvantage is in building a parallel infrastructure. Soon enough, technology will allow intelligent highways to be built which allow 4 times the traffic per lane, by simply embedding magnets in the highway and computers in the cars, allowing them to drive themselves. This would give the advantages of PRT to the commuter without the disadvantages. It would also save all of the advantages of cars, which people seem pretty well sold on. Of course some new infrastructure would be involved in building exits and entrances to the computer controlled lanes, but in most areas, for most of the driving distance, the carpool lanes could simply be converted into something useful.

It also allows for a gradual transition. As computerized cars become more prevalent, more lanes can be converted to drive-by-wire systems.

Posted by: JDM on October 21, 2003 04:12 PM

JDM: I agree that PRT, as currently defined, doesn't look like a good long-haul technology. It does, however, appear to have one great advantage over automobiles, which the "intelligent highway" proposal does not match: because PRT cars operate in their own guideways, above the street for the most part, street-level traffic need not be so heavy and dangerous to pedestrians. At the moment, we worry about erecting overhead "pedestrian walkways" to mitigate the dangers of crossing heavily trafficked boulevards or freeways. Depending upon how "intelligent" the "intelligent streets and highways" of the future are, we may have to use a variety of means to keep pedestrian traffic out of the way of vehicular traffic, in order to avoid the problems of automated vehicles harming erratically moving pedestrians. PRT reverses the situation, taking traffic above the street, instead. No matter how safe "intelligent highways" are engineered to be, you are going to have problems -- or at least the popularly perceived potential of problems -- with random pedestrian or near-pedestrian (bicycle, scooter, rollerblade, skateboard, SegWay) traffic. I predict that this will be a big sticking point that impedes public acceptance of "smart roads," ultimately requiring such roads to be completely enclosed and/or inaccessible to other forms of traffic, just like PRT guideways. But, being on the ground level, such roads will be much more troublesome for everyone who is NOT in a smart car than PRT guideways would be for those who didn't use PRT. Even with PRT completely off the table, I am extremely dubious about the viability and desirability of "smart roads," even as I am fascinated by the technology involved.

For the long haul problem, it is not hard to imagine corridor rail serving between cities, with special cars to transport PRT vehicles and their occupants as ferries now do for automobiles. Or, PRT could at very least bring commuters from their homes to a long-haul rail station in safety, privacy, and comfort, dropping them off within the terminal building, a short walk or moving-sidewalk ride from the long-haul train platform.

Kevin Carson: Check out the links I provided (which themselves provide even more useful links). Judge for yourself if your requirements are met. From what I have read and seen of the proposals, the potentials to use existing rights-of-way and even to succeed as a completely commercial venture seem good, which, frankly, is what excites me. In the worst case, all that seems necessary is government approval, for example, to replace a string of existing or planned lamp-posts with the somewhat bulkier and sturdier guideway supports (which can also double as lampposts, to serve those on the street). Stringing the guideway between the supports is described as being fairly straightforward. The PRT stations (ports) can be so small, while still being effective, that they could potentially occupy the ground space of a small townhouse (or less, if integrated with/in an existing building). Rather than eminent domain, then, a commercial enterprise might simply enter into a mutually profitable lease with those who own property in the proposed port locations, the same as any other shopkeeper or service provider might. That is certainly the impression I get from materials I have seen so far, anyway. Take a look at what is out there, and let me/us know if you agree. My point is not that all the answers to the questions are known or can be anticipated at the moment, but that the concept appears to have reached the stage where further answers will only come from either a completely realistic simulation or an actual working system. It seems like it would be worthwhile to invest in finding those answers, one way or the other. For instance, if we learn that PRT works as advertised, we might start developing in that direction, eventually finding other things to do with a significant amount of the land that is now occupied by roads or freeways. On the other hand, if PRT really won't pass muster, then we should finally give it up and move on to other things, such as "smart roads," warts and all. I'm just saying that I don't think we should ignore PRT without the fair trial it doesn appear to have had yet.

Posted by: James Merritt on October 21, 2003 05:01 PM

I don't think smart roads sound like such a good idea in the forseeable future either. Smart freeways are a different matter. Pedestrian and local traffic problems more or less go away. You drive your car normally into the intelligent lane on the highway, and let the computers, magnets, and radar take over from there. It functions much like a high occupancy vehicle lane does now, except that it carries 10 times the traffic of an HOV lane.

The fact that PRT is elevated certainly only helps its case in urban areas. I don't think there is much chance for it to compete with cars in less dense areas.

I saw a piece on television about the intelligent highway lane several years ago. GM had already built a system on their proving grounds somewhere, and had all the technological hurdles worked out. They showed video of 5 or 10 cars cruising at 70 miles an hour separated by about 3 feet. Their research showed that the main sticking point was that drivers were too afraid of just taking their hands off the wheel and letting the car drive itself, in spite of the fact that it would actually be far safer to travel this way.

The new Toyota Prius can park itself, so the technology is coming, and apparently, it's not very expensive.

Posted by: JDM on October 21, 2003 07:12 PM

JDM: Of course, there area a great many urban and suburban areas. I wonder how densely populated an area needs to be to support a PRT grid? I suppose PRT wouldn't be practical out in Barstow CA, for instance. But the viability of such a system in suburban or less densely-populated areas would seem to depend on the answer to the following two questions being YES in a large enough number of cases to allow for the recouping of construction, maintenance, and operational costs:

1. Is there a station at or (acceptably) near where you are now?
2. Is there a station at or near where you want to go?

To the extent that people's trips kept them within the grid-service region, chances are good that the answers would be YES often enough to make the system worthwhile. If, on the other hand, people were more often having to take trips that started or ended outside the grid-service area (e.g., commuting to another town where there were no PRT grid and/or long-haul carrier between them), then they'd be better off using cars. As I see it, the real key here seems to be whether construction costs are as low as they are claimed to be by PRT proponents, and whether operation of the grid can, in fact, generate a profit that would fund both outward and fill-in expansion (not to mention inspire people in other areas to imitate the success). I think that, in coming up with the answers to those questions, we would soon discover what the "threshhold population density" to support PRT might be for any particular cost-per-trip. I'm thinking a $2.00 fare is attractive. But is it practical?

As far as "smart highways" are concerned: I am as enamored of cool technology as much as the next guy, but the idea of even "smart" highways (as opposed to the more general "smart roads") gives me pause (and yes, I've seen clips of alleged films of the GM prototypes -- pretty cool!). My interest in PRT is not in some kind of panacaea, environmentalist solution to transport problems, which will be mandated by government fiat, and supported through tax subsidy, to the discouragement or exclusion of all else, but rather a cost-effective solution to a real, practical problem that savvy entrepreneurs can establish in a variety of regions with little government involvement or cooperation, and then go on to operate at a profit, provided that the service is good and the demand for the service exists. To the extent that a PRT system would require government subsidy, or any government assistance other than "getting out the way," I would consider it as a failure.

"Smart highways," on the other hand: I wonder how much government assistance and/or participation THOSE would require to become practical and pervasive? That prospect worries me about as much as the possibility that something like PRT will become a government project before private entrepreneurs can prove that government isn't necessary in this case.

Posted by: James Merritt on October 21, 2003 08:57 PM
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