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August 30, 2007

My Commenters Are Smarter Than Me: Mass Transit Edition

Tyro (again!) writes:

even in situations where density is there, we still don't have good transit infrastructure. The I-95 rail corridor is substandard. The DC-metro area's density lends itself to a fuller public transit infrastructure, and Boston remains fixated on planning their new public transit infrastructure around slow moving buses. And these are all places that could support rapid mass-transit. We simply don't have the will to create "showpiece" systems in places where it actually makes sense.

Another funny thing about the metro is that, in the various controversies surrounding some basic renovations, one of the members of the board described the DC metro as "The Cadillac of urban transit systems." This was right on as a description-- a Cadillac was very nice in its hey-day, when little else was available, it is still considered luxurious by the elderly and the poor, it's unreliable, unwieldy, and you can find much better models for what you're looking for that are made in foreign countries.

August 30, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

I've been bitching way too much about the metro. In its defense, as I said in that thread, when you have trains arriving every 2-3 minutes during rush hour, it's awesome. I commuted a long distance to work every day and would still be using it were it not for the requirement that I board a shuttlebus for a 10-minute ride from the metro station to work, and in my apartment search, I decided to forgo a really nice place because, ultimately, it wasn't near a metro station. I like the system, but I hate the times I realize I'm better off getting in my car to go someplace in the city from my home.

Crosstown lines that ran from Wisconsin Ave to Woodley Park to Adams Morgan to U St. would be nice, though. Having the blue line stop in georgetown and then move north, connecting to union station and then going down H St. before rejoining its current route at Minnesota Ave. would be nice, too.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 30, 2007 2:27:32 PM

Rushing to an event at 11 this morn, the yellow came in three minutes and the red in one. I got there four minutes early. I really love the metro.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 30, 2007 2:30:55 PM

I still remember my first day in Manhattan. I got on a bus. A crowded bus. I had lots of time to admire the 'scenery', and eventually noticed that the 'scenery', i.e., the crowd on the sidewalks, was moving a lot faster than the bus.

I got off the bus and walked to my destination. 42 blocks. Who knew. Time to learn the subway map!

Don't worry, $10/gallon gas will revive our enthusiasm for transit. And the Chinese are getting really good at building it. Eventually our proud but inept nation will be able to buy quality stuff from those who have mastered technology.

Posted by: serial catowner | Aug 30, 2007 2:49:10 PM

Every time I visit, the metro is seriously gorgeous, fast, and very comfortable ride. I LOVE the advertisements in the tunnels, they are SO COOL!

That said, I loathe and despise the distance-based pricing system. NY & Boston's system, where you pay a flat fee regardless of how far you go (or you buy a daily/weekly/monthly pass) is much, much better. Also, in those systems you don't have to go through two(!) sets of turnstiles, one when you get on and one when you leave. Although your turnstiles are much better than nyc-style turnstiles.

But most importantly, your stupid paper cards de-magnetize if I put them anywhere near my cell phone. This is the real reason transit has a bad public rep.

Posted by: anonymous | Aug 30, 2007 2:59:47 PM

Crosstown lines that ran from Wisconsin Ave to Woodley Park to Adams Morgan to U St. would be nice, though. Having the blue line stop in Georgetown and then move north, connecting to union station and then going down H St. before rejoining its current route at Minnesota Ave. would be nice, too.

As I recall, a lot of this was being planned a few years ago, before it was sacrificed to the cost gods and we started hearing more crap about dedicated bus lanes and light rail. Separating the blue line from the orange and having it run north a bit (so it hit Georgetown, Adams-Morgan, and such) was definitely something they even had a map for.

Fixing the hub-and-spoke system is probably the biggest long-term problem Metrorail has right now, as the current design forces all congestion downtown. Again, though, no one wants to spend all that money upfront, so focus goes to projects at the fringes that will only exacerbate the problem (the silver line and to a lesser extent the purple line).

Posted by: Cain | Aug 30, 2007 3:05:04 PM

Back in the day (and I am talking 1910, a year after the Model T started wrecking everything), urban rail transit, as we know it, was part of a vast interurban system that covered the Northeast, the industrial mid-west, and vast stretches of urban/suburban California. The great L.A. "Red Car" systems of legend were interurban systems.

I suspect that, politically as well as practically, the key to great urban transit is great interurban transit.

The French and the Germans and the Koreans and the Chinese are revolutionizing what can be done in interurban rail transit.

Rail can be superior to air travel at distances between city centers of 300 miles. For heavily traveled corridors, like Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington, rail should be able to completely displace air travel, which would provide some relief to airport overcrowding.

But, the economic implications for intervening areas are what could make rail politically as well as economically superior. Airports are necessarily centralizing nodes, with no implications for intervening areas, but rail, which makes it possible to go from Boston to New York in under 3 hours would also make it possible to go from Providence or Hartford or Bridgeport to either city in much less time. Rail, properly designed, can improve the economic prospects of vast suburban/exurban areas.

But, someone, who travels by inter-city rail has to be able travel locally, as well.

Anyway, the political point is that inter-city rail transit expands the constituency for rail transit along several critical dimensions. Urban transit advocates might find that advocating for intercity systems might be an effective, albeit indirect strategy of improving the political clout of urban transit.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 30, 2007 3:17:30 PM

My question - seriously, I'd like an answer and I can't find one - is why we think that mass transit should pay for itself, but we don't seem to think that highways should pay for themselves. I understand the defense justification for the interstate system, but it strikes me as bogus. Intra-urban beltway highways get built all the time with no greater justification than convenience. And out west there certainly aren't many toll roads despite a great proliferation of highways in sprawling urban areas. We are willing to sink millions into that kind of transportation infrastructure (that has to be contantly repaired in places with wildly varying climates), but if a single light-rail line doesn't break even in the first fiscal quarter we give up. Why is that?

Posted by: justin | Aug 30, 2007 3:43:34 PM

is why we think that mass transit should pay for itself, but we don't seem to think that highways should pay for themselves.

I second justin's question. It always galls me when they talk about how much money Amtrak looses or how much more expensive rail is than just having people drive in cars, when Amtrak has to pay for the use (or to own) rail-lines, whereas I don't see how much I pay for highways (outside of an occasional toll) as the money comes from my taxes.

Why aren't rail-lines owned and maintained by the government just as roads are? If you talk about the cost of rail and include the cost of the rails themselves, you better be fair and include the costs of highway maintainance when talking about driving. And the same goes double for freight transportation over roads (where semis cause damage to roads for which government ends up paying -- even with increased toll rates for trucks) vs. over rails ...

Posted by: DAS | Aug 30, 2007 4:29:30 PM

All true ... except for the jibe at American autos. Cadillac is perfectly reliable these days. Lexus even took a tumble in the latest model year.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Aug 30, 2007 4:39:27 PM

Opposition to fast and efficient intra-urban transit comes traditionally from suburban voters reluctant to give Them (i.e. the urban poor) easier access outside the inner city. While this may seem a relic of an earlier, and dumber, era, worries about "crime" at the "mall" helped cut back the scope of the new rapid transit line in Minneapolis three/four years ago, and might well be behind Boston's apparently clueless bus plan.

Posted by: Will Divide | Aug 30, 2007 5:21:37 PM

I second justin's question. It always galls me when they talk about how much money Amtrak looses or how much more expensive rail is than just having people drive in cars, when Amtrak has to pay for the use (or to own) rail-lines, whereas I don't see how much I pay for highways (outside of an occasional toll) as the money comes from my taxes.

I third that question and also ask why the US government heavily subsidizes the airline industry and builds the airports and runways but won't do the same for trains and railroads. We certainly could have used more trains after 9-11 and current administration are the ones always ranting about how 9-11 changed everything. Except for our mass transit system, apparently.

Posted by: lou | Aug 30, 2007 6:09:55 PM

worries about "crime" at the "mall" - Will Divide

What is it about certain people having this complete and utter fear of "gang activity" at malls? Where do they get this idea? Are malls in general really that gang ridden? Would these people even recognize a gang member short of that person doing a dance straight out of West Side Story?

Posted by: DAS | Aug 30, 2007 6:14:33 PM

I believe, for the most part, that the "subsidies" for highways and for air travel are paid by taxes on those very activities. In other words, highways are largely self-sustaining, in that they are paid by user fees (gas tax, tolls, charges on interstate trucks). I believe a good chunk of air travel is paid for by taxes on aviation fuel and plane tickets (I'm less confident about this point, though). And, if either the highway system or the air travel system were losing money, the appropriate taxes could be raised to cover those losses.

In contrast, rail travel appears to be a money-losing proposition, period -- at least for the time being -- in that I don't think a tax on rail users would provide enough revenue to fund the rail system.

Posted by: Steve H. | Aug 30, 2007 6:21:37 PM

Paris Hilton was razzed for making this remark a couple years ago:

"[The New York subway] literally smells like pee. Why can't they do anything about that?"

That's actually a very good question: Hong Kong's subway doesn't smell like that.

If Paris Hilton is calling our country out on basic public policy questions, we have definitely taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Posted by: alkali | Aug 30, 2007 6:36:56 PM

The highways and the airports do not pay for themselves. In fact, until quite recently, in old guy terms, the airlines didn't pay anything for the airports they used, or the incredibly expensive air traffic control system. Even if you stripped away all the appropriated subsidies for roads and airports, you would still be left with the fact that they don't pay any property taxes.

In contrast, railroads have always paid taxes, part of why it's so hard for them to compete with barges on federally built waterways and trucks on the interstates.

Part of the reason things are as they are is a huge propaganda industry by rightwingers, such as the oil industry that sells gas for cars, the car makers, suburban developers who lobby in statehouses to get roads built to their developments, the homebuilding industry, etc etc.

This propaganda industry constantly pumps out 'studies' and articles 'proving' that building transit "doesn't cure congestion" and promoting bromides like 'Bus Rapid Transit'. A good place to see this stuff debunked is lightrailnow.org.

Sure, passenger rail never pays for itself unless you think of the good of the nation as a whole and consider the future that is coming. In that future, French, German, and Chinese companies with 200-mph trainsets will bury us economically. Freeways will only be for the wealthy (congestion charging, dontcha know) and air travel for the superwealthy. The rest of us will be riding buses and wondering why Mexico City has a subway and our town doesn't.

Unless we turn this situation around, of course.

Posted by: serial catowner | Aug 30, 2007 7:41:32 PM

Apropos of this discussion, DCist has a post about the metro's silver line which argues that the Federal standards of "cost effectiveness" end up starving funds for a lot of worthwhile projects. The quote that I'm going to make sure to steal sometime in the future:

Like tattoos and tax attorneys, transit service is not something you can buy on the cheap

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 30, 2007 10:09:18 PM

Posted by: Steve H. | Aug 30, 2007 6:21:37 PM

I believe, for the most part, that the "subsidies" for highways and for air travel are paid by taxes on those very activities. In other words, highways are largely self-sustaining, in that they are paid by user fees (gas tax, tolls, charges on interstate trucks). ...

That is not surprising, as it is a very common belief. That may well be because the drain of the mixed private/public auto transport system on general revenues does not generally come in the form of things that must be paid for up front in order to get the system established ... they are things that must be paid after the fact in order to cope with the system. Auto-related expenses for law enforcement, the "need" for public parking, the requirements for larger emergency rooms, not to mention the external costs of pollution ... all expenses forced on us by cars, but not things that cars have to get financed in order to run through an area.

When they are added to the costs of streets that do not receive highway funding, the costs of highway infrastructure is not the major portion of the public costs of automobiles ... but for most of the country, they are the major part of the public costs that are born directly by drivers.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Aug 31, 2007 12:12:56 AM

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 30, 2007 3:17:30 PM

Rail can be superior to air travel at distances between city centers of 300 miles.

Rail can be superior to air travel at trip times of under three hours.

Now, in most parts of the world, 110mph is not "High Speed Rail" ... its just an express train. But in the US, any rail corridor to support trains running faster than something like 90mph are officially "High Speed Rail" corridors, so I've taken to calling them "Express" High Speed services, as opposed to "Very" High Speed services.

However, using tilt train technology, Express HSR can run in ordinary rail corridors, with first class track and, normally, upgrades to road crossings. Since Right of Way acquisition and full grade separation can be such dominant costs in establishing Very HSR, the 300 mile radius is a very good starting point to consider.

  • Boston/Albany/New York City, 271 miles
  • Philadelphia/Pittsburgh, 254 miles
  • Chicago/Cleveland, 312 miles
  • Chicago/Saint Louis, 262 miles
  • Charlotte NC / Atlanta, 222 miles
  • Dallas / Houston, 225 miles

... but of course, only if we put interstate rail on a level financial playing with interstate air and highways.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Aug 31, 2007 12:33:24 AM

What is it about certain people having this complete and utter fear of "gang activity" at malls? Where do they get this idea? Are malls in general really that gang ridden? Would these people even recognize a gang member short of that person doing a dance straight out of West Side Story?

Yes, this has actually been a pretty big problem in the LA, Chicago, and Long Island areas, I can think of off the top of my head. I've seen it in action. Growing up, our local was the Montgomery Mall. Standard two-level, four-anchor enclosed in a sea of parking at a confluence of 3 highways. Built in the far suburbs of Philly, by the time I came around it was in the mid-range suburbs, now the inner ring's advancing. I swung by when I was back in town a few months ago, and wow.

Once pretty lily-white, there were a lot more lower-class, black customers, and more stores hawking "ghetto style" to match, and fair enough, I dig demographic shifts. But that's not where it ended. For one thing, there were at least two fairly sophisticated dealing ops going on - at one end of the mall, I passed a few times by a kid hawking Oxy and H under his breath, and at the other I happened to notice a handoff as two people walked by each other so I sat on a bench to follow the operation - at least two spotters, a hawker, a guy holding, a guy who took money, and a guy who delivered product. And those are the guys who were trying to be unobtrusive. There were also a few clumps of kids in gang colors trying to look hard. They were really junior high wannabes, but I'm of the generation and demographic that idolizes '70s New York, and even I was a little taken aback by that. I can only imagine whatcher stereotypa' soccer mom thinks of the whole thing.

Posted by: Senescent | Aug 31, 2007 1:22:37 AM

A problem, or opportunity, in building HST for America is that we know now that freight and passenger traffic can't really share the same rails. This has actually been true in the minds of the railroad managements for about a hundred years.

The tilt-train technologies are basically an effort to achieve passenger comfort by tilting the train, while the other way to the same goal is to tilt the rails (this is called 'superelevation'). The reason for this is that if you remain upright while rounding a curve, centrifugal force creates an unpleasant sensation.

Building an entirely new right-of-way for HST allows you to put the rails in the right place for your terminals, yards, and servicing facilities, as well as achieving superelevation, grade separation, favorable gradients for operation, and dealing with environmental concerns in a unified manner separate from freight movements.

America's trucks are not built for economy- notice how often THEY pass YOU on the hills these days. I don't think it will be long before the freight railroads will experience massive traffic growth, making Amtrak on-time performance worse than it is today.

Time to start thinking about the transportation systems of the future rather than plowing money into the systems of the past.

Posted by: serial catowner | Aug 31, 2007 1:09:14 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 11, 2007 6:44:16 AM

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