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Monday, June 30, 2008

Doug MacDonald's criticism of light rail and rapid transit is flawed - here's why

Last week, Crosscut began publishing an in-depth, three part series by former state transportation secretary Doug MacDonald which brazenly asserts that rail "has no place in a big new transit plan". MacDonald, who oversaw the state's highway and ferry system for over six years before he resigned in 2007, can't drive because of poor eyesight, and recently became a regular bus rider.

While MacDonald does appreciate the value of public transportation, he is regretfully only a proponent of one type: buses.

MacDonald seems to despise Sound Transit with a passion. It's clearly evident in his writing. He doesn't like the agency's focus on rail, doesn't like its proposed projects, and amazingly, doesn't even like its process for gathering public input. He gives Sound Transit almost no credit for its work.

(Maybe jealously is partly to blame...surveys show that Sound Transit has a better relationship with the public than WSDOT).

MacDonald's long data-filled diatribe against rail and Sound Transit makes a number of conclusions that are problematic and deserving of a response. In this post, I'm going to challenge MacDonald's premise that rail shouldn't be part of the mix of transit solutions we build to alleviate congestion and give commuter choices.

The first mistake MacDonald makes is that he forgets the old maxim one size doesn't fit all. Just as the human body has different types of blood vessels (arteries, veins, arterioles, venule, capillaries), an effective, usable transit system must be multimodal. Buses simply cannot adequately substitute for rail, just as capillaries can't do the job of arteries. The most usable transit systems typically have these components.

Commuter Rail. Also known as heavy rail. Typically runs on diesel. Efficiently moves large numbers of people between destinations or hubs, such as Tacoma and Seattle (Sounder), without ever getting stuck in traffic. Typically operates around rush hour or for special events only. Amtrak operates long distance commuter trains in some regions of the United States.

Light Rail. Usually runs in its own right of way, powered by electricity, along key corridors, connecting communities together and offering guaranteed travel times. Light rail operates at high speeds with fast station stops. Light rail also makes more frequent stops (unlike heavy rail) and runs continuously throughout the day.

Streetcars. Also referred to as trolleys or trams. Most modern streetcars are powered by electricity, although San Francisco's system continues to use cables. Streetcars, as the name suggests, are built into the street, and they run for short distances with a high number of stops. They are designed to carry less people than light or heavy rail. The South Lake Union Trolley and Tacoma Link (which Sound Transit has confusingly branded "light rail") are streetcars.

Buses. Buses are large road vehicles that transport passengers along designated routes. Because buses do not operate along trackway, routes can be changed. This provides flexibility but may also create confusion for riders. Buses are especially ubiquitous and dominant in Puget Sound because most communities are not served by rail. Because buses are road vehicles, they are prone to getting stuck in traffic congestion. "Bus rapid transit" routes attempt to solve this problem by providing a dedicated, restricted lane for buses to travel in. Note that the term does not actually refer to the speed of the buses.

Shuttle service. Shuttle services like King County Metro's Dial A Ride Transit bring public transit to homes and businesses not well served by buses. Shuttles operate on variable routes, meaning they generally go to where the riders are instead of the other way around. DART does not go door to door, however. Instead, it goes to the nearest predetermined access point (which passengers must walk, bike, or drive to) when it leaves the route.

Vanpools. The most cost effective mode of public transportation available, vanpools allow a small group of people (usually between five and fifteen) to share the ride from home to the workplace. Vanpools take advantage of high occupancy vehicle lanes to dodge traffic jams. A derivative concept, the vanshare, allows a small group of people to share the ride from home to a major transit hub where the passengers and driver may then board a ferry, commuter rail, light rail, or bus.

We already have great "rubber tire" transit services in Puget Sound. Metro's vanpool program is perhaps the most successful in the United States, for example, and together Metro, Community Transit, and Pierce Transit have a huge bus fleet. What we're missing is a rail network.

We have capillaries moonlighting as arteries and veins.

Rail is extremely effective at carrying large numbers of people through corridors, which is where our worst congestion is. Think about it: when was the last time you sat in a traffic jam on any of the streets around your house? Our highways, like Interstate 5, Interstate 405, Interstate 90, and State Route 520 are the big bottlenecks in our transportation system.

Except for Sounder, rail does not currently serve any of these corridors, and there is no light rail (there will be in 2009 when Central Link opens).

Sounder's popularity alone is evidence we need more rail, not less.

The second mistake MacDonald makes is that he attacks Sound Transit for not doing what it is, in fact, doing. In MacDonald's words:
Sound Transit's expensive tax increase would be spent almost entirely on the limited routes and services it sponsors, so here's the big question: When could we ever expect more funding for the 90 percent of the system virtually exploding with double-digit ridership increases today that is not part of Sound Transit?

Struggling to digest the big Sound Transit swallow, would public appetite in the era of unaffordable gas prices recover in time to take up the much larger needs of the system as a whole?

The single-vision Sound Transit directors and staff haven't raised this question in their own discussions or in their ongoing "public outreach" publicity blitz.

Riders, potential riders, all elected officials, and taxpayers should care about the big picture, even if Sound Transit apparently doesn't.
Doug unfortunately has it all backward.

Sound Transit was not created to funnel money into a bigger and badder bus fleet. It was created to design and build a regional transit network that improves mobility in Puget Sound. Or, in other words... look at the big picture, something that our existing transit providers cannot do a good job of because their primary objective is to operate buses that serve neighborhoods in one county only.

What would be the point of having an organization that simply duplicates what Metro, Community Transit, and Pierce Transit already do?

Sound Transit's dollars are supposed to be spent on worthy capital projects that connect the region together. Since rail lines cannot be built overnight, Sound Transit has started by providing much needed express bus service, which is operated by its partner agencies.

It's strange, but MacDonald is condemning Sound Transit for not spending its money the way it's required to (and the way the public expects it to).

MacDonald goes on to claim that creating a rail network isn't worth it because it takes time to build. Let's debunk this third erroneous conclusion.
Sound Transit knows exactly what new projects it would build. And when it would hope to complete them.

Don't hold your breath to see new transportation services from these projects anytime soon. Most of the new projects would not go into service until 2020, when today's four-county regional population is expected to have grown by an additional half million people, from today's 3.6 million.

Nevertheless, some of those eventual projects certainly will be big – in dollar cost, anyway!
The old adage, Rome wasn't built in a day comes to mind here. Just because we can't get rail overnight doesn't mean we shouldn't get started building it. The longer we wait, the more it will cost.

By making the decision to expand Link now, we can save money and reap the benefits sooner. If we dither, we are simply postponing an inevitable decision. Sooner or later, we'll be so sick of traffic congestion that we will move ahead and invest in rail because we need a reliable way to get around.

Rail is a long-term investment. It has to be thought of in that way. It doesn't make sense to decide against a project simply because it won't be finished and available tomorrow. The necessity of immediate action should not preclude wise and thoughtful planning for the future.

MacDonald used to head WSDOT - he of all people should know that it takes time to develop infrastructure. Many of the projects funded by the 2003 nickel gas tax increase are still under construction. Others have just opened, like State Route 520's new westbound flyover ramp at Redmond Way.

Clearly, MacDonald had no problem approving highway projects that he knew would take years to be completed during his tenure.

On to Number Four. MacDonald claims the impact of Link expansion would be negligible and argues that many of the new riders would come from buses:
Altogether, for spending about $4.1 billion in today's dollars (more because of inflation to the time the projects are actually built), bright ribbons of light rail would serve two corridors in King County only and would eventually accommodate by 2030 a total of perhaps 100,000 daily boardings more than would be the case if none of the proposed light rail extensions in the new plan were made at all.

Reaching that gain in ridership 22 years from now represents the equivalent of growing today's regional transit boardings of almost 540,000 by less than a fifth. That's the equal of growing today's ridership at an annual compound rate of growth of just under 0.8 percent. Of course, if you think about it, even that is a big overstatement, because lots of those so-called new riders are already on the buses to be replaced by the light rail lines, so they really aren't new riders to transit at all!
Emphasis is mine.

The two corridors that Link expansion would serve are two of the most heavily traveled routes in Puget Sound. Deploying Link south towards Tacoma, north towards Everett, and east towards Redmond will provide commuters with dependable transport to work no matter what the weather or traffic conditions are like. Rail is a crucial foundation for a usable mass transit system.

Expansion of Link also ultimately gives the bus fleet further reach into surrounding communities because huge numbers of buses are no longer needed to do rail's job.

MacDonald's canard that rail will siphon riders from buses is a particularly egregious statement. I'll let conservatives Paul Weyrich and Bill Lind (who, like ourselves, understand the value of rail transit) tackle this one (PDF):
Buses and rail transit are at least as different as apples and oranges. With a few exceptions, they serve different purposes and different people - so different that it may be more of a hindrance than a help to lump them together as "public transit."

In general, buses serve the purpose of providing mobility to people who have no car or cannot drive - the transit dependent [i.e. Doug MacDonald]. Rail transit serves the purpose of reducing traffic by drawing to transit riders from choice, people who have cars and can drive if they choose to do so.
Consider the evidence:
The differences between bus riders and rail transit riders were dramatically demonstrated in a comparative survey of both done in St. Louis in 1993, shortly after Light Rail opened in that city.
  • Among bus riders, 70% said they used the bus because they did not drive or had no car available.
  • For train riders, the figure was 17%.
  • 11% of train riders took the train because it was faster than driving, and 13% because it was more relaxing; for bus riders, the figures were 3% and 2%.
  • 84% of train riders rated service as excellent or good, compared to 57% of bus riders.
  • 40% of bus riders owned no car, and 28% had two or more cars. Only 8% of train riders had no car. 68% had two or more cars.
  • 48% of bus riders live in the inner city, compared to 14% of train riders [who are more likely to live in the suburbs].
  • 57% of bus riders have annual household incomes of less than $20,000, compared to 21% of train riders. Only 6% of bus riders have incomes of over $45,000, compared to 38% of train riders.
For the 40% of bus passengers who have no car, the bus is their only way to get around. That is true of only 8% of train riders.

But the 68% of train riders who have two or more cars would presumably drive if there were no train, so for them, the social purpose of rail transit is to reduce traffic. In fact, 68% may be too low; the same survey found that before the Light Rail line opened, 79% of rail riders did not use transit at all.
Research in other major American cities has produced remarkably consistent results. Trains get commuters out of their cars in large numbers; buses do not. What does this mean?

It means if we expand Link north, east, and south, we can take far greater number of single occupant vehicles off the road than we can with buses, even buses traveling in their own dedicated lanes. Buses simply do not appeal to people who have the option of driving like trains do. Unlike the bus, rail is:
  • reliable: runs in its own right of way and doesn't get stuck in traffic
  • convenient: runs so frequently you don't need a schedule to ride it
  • clean: powered by electricity, so it doesn't produce emissions
  • quick: operates at high speeds with fast station stops
  • flexible: can be built at grade, above ground on aerial trackway, or below ground in tunnels
Rail also offers a smoother ride. Anyone who has driven or ridden in a vehicle traversing Interstate 5 in the Central Sound knows how bumpy the road can be - and lumbering buses don't handle bumpy roads well.

Rail's ability to get commuters out of their cars could drastically improve our transportation mess. Yes, growth will continue and the highways will still be somewhat crowded, but quality of life will improve if we build rail. Hundreds of thousands of commuters would finally have a choice.

The whole basis of MacDonald's critique is flawed because he pits rail and buses against each other without considering that each is complimentary, and does something that the other cannot.

Weyrich and Lind use fruit as a metaphor:
Imagine a fruit wholesalers convention where a speaker, three sheets to the wind on hard cider, holds up an apple and an orange and exclaims, "Everybody should buy oranges, not apples. Why, this orange produces twenty times as much juice as this apple!"

To which a sober farmer replies, "It makes no sense to compare completely different fruits. Comparing apples and oranges is as dumb as comparing buses and rail transit."
MacDonald is like that speaker obsessing over the wonder of the orange, standing next to charts that show how much juice the average Florida fruit produces compared to a Washington apple.

In this case, MacDonald's "juice" is boardings, which prop up his argument that buses are superior. The proper measurement to evaluate transit, however, is revenue passenger miles, which he doesn't use.

In Part 2 of his series, MacDonald has the audacity to derisively attack Sounder as "sprawl rail" for encouraging long distance commuting.

That claim is breathtaking in its stupidity.

Once again, MacDonald has it backwards. Rail encourages density. It is highway building that encourages sprawl - the kind of highway building that MacDonald's WSDOT was and is still obsessed with. Our car-dependent communities sprung up around the highways we constructed decades ago.

Sounder isn't causing problems, it's solving them. Sounder is taking cars off the highways and making everyone's commute more manageable.

If MacDonald truly cares about halting sprawl and encouraging people to live closer to where they work, he'll start a public campaign to get the Legislature and his successor Paula Hammond to cancel the widening of I-405, a project that will ultimately cost a terrific amount of money and yield zero benefit to commuters.

Let's put that money into expanded bus service. How about it, Doug?

MacDonald also tries to argue that the phenomenon of induced traffic will cancel out the cars taken off the road by light rail. That is, people will assume other people are riding the train, and so will make the choice to drive, causing "recongestion".

But McDonald doesn't produce a shred of evidence to back up this claim.

There is an incredibly stark difference between building light rail and adding new lanes. Adding lanes does nothing to solve congestion because it encourages people to take more trips. Adding light rail, on the other hand, does improve congestion because it gets commuters out of their cars. It gives hundreds of thousands of people a reliable way to get to work.

Making high quality transit available does not encourage people to take more trips in their cars, it encourages them to try the train.

Incidentally, if MacDonald understands induced traffic, why is WSDOT so stuck in its mindset of enlarging highways? MacDonald ran the agency for over half a decade. Why didn't he urge the Legislature to fund local bus service? (Part of the state motor vehicle excise tax used to do this, until it was eliminated by Gary Locke and the Legislature in 2000).

In Part 3 of his series, MacDonald laughably claims that "social engineering is a bad idea for pushing change." Memo to Doug: ALL change is "social engineering"! Building highways was and is "social engineering".

Our city ordinances that mandate wide streets and unwalkable neighborhoods are "social engineering". WSDOT's dogged determination to make I-405 and I-5 ever wider is "social engineering" at its worst.

It's time for this pointless old phrase to be retired.

MacDonald also criticizes Sound Transit's public relations and marketing operation:
Now, Sound Transit recognizes only one brand in the region: Sound Transit. Its corporate strategy and its big advertising budget — who has ever seen its tax-funded equal? — focus overwhelmingly on a single product: rail transit. That won't do for a truly regional-minded transit agency.
Don't get me started on WSDOT's marketing, Doug, especially those stupid signs next to Interstate 5 that proclaim: FREEWAY EXPANSION - IMPROVES TRAFFIC.

Sound Transit's objective is to build a regional transit system. Naturally, its advertising reflects that goal, although it does promote its Express bus service too. The reason Sound Transit has a marketing budget is that people can't simply be forced aboard mass transit. They have to be persuaded to try it. Sound Transit's public relations budget allows it to make the public aware of what it offers.

Again, in Part 3, MacDonald dismissively knocks rail as a nonstarter:
Successful organizations build their strategies around meeting customer-driven needs. The customer-driven mission here is to help move ordinary people where they need to go. It's not to lay a few ribbons of expensive rail lines where it seems suitable and convenient to engineering firms, public relations consultants, contractors, and rail buffs.
This is getting really old.

"Successful organizations build their strategies around meeting customer-driven needs?" You're getting into corporate mumbo jumbo territory here, Doug.

It's callous and ridiculous to suggest that Sound Transit exists to line the pockets of contractors and satisfy rail buffs who gleefully want expensive new toys.

That's akin to saying WSDOT just serves asphalt pavers and shipbuilders, not the public. (Even we wouldn't argue that, although there's no disputing that widening highways is good business for asphalt pavers.)

The "few ribbons" of rail that Sound Transit hopes to lay will, when built, be the bedrock of a regional rail network that will provide a reliable lifeline between our communities. Cities that have already built rail networks enjoy huge societal benefits compared to metro areas that only have buses.

In 2004, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute authored a report (PDF) which highlighted some of the differences between "bus only" cities and cities with a well developed rail network. Unlike "bus only" cities, "large rail" cities have:
  • 400% higher per capita transit ridership (589 versus 118 annual passenger-miles).
  • 887% higher the transit commute mode split (13.4% versus 2.7%).
  • 36% lower per capita traffic fatalities (7.5 versus 11.7 deaths per 100,000 residents).
  • 14% lower per capita consumer transportation expenditures ($448 average annual savings), despite residents’ higher incomes.
  • 19% smaller portion of household budgets devoted to transport (12.0% versus 14.9%).
  • 21% lower per capita motor vehicle mileage (1,958 fewer annual miles).
  • 33% lower transit operating costs per passenger-mile (42¢ versus 63¢).
  • 58% higher transit service cost recovery (38% versus 24%).
Rail, again, is a long term investment. It pays off over time. As Litman notes, all too often, people like Doug MacDonald err in their conclusions:
When critics conclude that rail transit is ineffective and wasteful, the failure is often in their analysis. Either from ignorance or intention, critics fail to use best practices for transit evaluation. Their statistical analysis tends to be flawed and biased. They ignore many benefits of rail transit, and understate the full costs of travel by other modes under the same conditions. They use inaccurate information. These errors and omissions violate basic evaluation principles and significantly distort results. Critics claim that rail transit support is limited to "Pork Lovers, Auto Haters, and Nostalgia Buffs." This is untrue.
MacDonald's analysis is faulty and his conclusions mistaken. His entire series is really a vendetta against rail and Sound Transit, not a useful and unbiased evaluation of our existing mass transit system.

We welcome MacDonald's newfound interest in strengthening bus routes and increasing service. But we already have enough John Niles and Mark Baerwaldts out there harmfully bashing rail and deceiving the public. At the very least, we expect former public servants like Doug MacDonald to present a more credible argument if they're going to participate in a public debate about investing in rail.

It's telling that MacDonald became a passionate fan of buses after he started riding them. We hope that when Link service begins, he'll be open to trying it, and he'll change his mind about rail.


Blogger jetgraphics said...

America needs electrified rail based mass transit: heavy rail, light rail, commuter express, and local streetcars.
The law of physics is one reason. Finite surface area is another. And breathable air is always a popular option.
We know that taxpayer subsidized roads and cheap fuel rewarded automobiles, buses and trucks while penalizing railroads, despite their inherent advantages. And we know that government is a poor choice for frugal, efficient and timely services.
Instead of giving taxpayer money to spur the renaissance of America rail, let us not take tax money from railroad companies – on a sliding scale.
Let the tax rate be inversely proportional to the increase in rail rights of way, passengers carried, and other positive features. And tax any unpleasant features, so that there is an incentive to correct them. Don't burden the companies with voluminous rules and bureaucratic overhead. Let's get America back on track - GO RAIL!

July 1, 2008 9:58 AM  
Blogger renegade said...

As a regulator/tax payer involved with the process of permitting the commuter rail between Everett and Seattle. I am still enraged at the way our system was put together on the cheap (using existing railroad right of way). Voters for this version of commuter rail aren't aware the bait and switch Sound Transit pulled, selling the public on a mass transit system, but without disclosing that the majority of the system could only be accessed through coastal communities. Kitsap, Jefferson and even Clallam Counties gained access to jobs in Seattle WITHOUT even voting for inclusion into the commuter rail system. As a result, the mitigation was mostly smoke and mirrors; even my legal appeal to avoid the use of creosote treated timbers was legally obstucted.

When I objected that the coastal route wouldn't do squat to reduce traffic on I-5, it was made clear by project sponsors that I was obviously I was NOT a transit planner. Had I known the coastal route would be the ONLY acceptable alternative, I would NEVER have voted for the system (as I doubt would have others).

With the ridership numbers increasing, I am sure the Sound Transit folks are spraining arms patting themselves on the back...but I am saddened to see commuter ridership driven by desperation. One can only imagine the benefits realized by employing a route alternative closer to the I-5 corridor, and the actual citizens who voted (and paid) for the system.

July 1, 2008 3:06 PM  
Blogger Doug MacDonald said...

I had hoped for something a little more substantive. Like, for starters, a response to the articles I actually wrote. Rather than the old dodge of responding in a vigorous debate by setting up and knocking down a straw man.
Briefly, as my articles stated, I support light rail. I voted for Central Link light rail. In the dark days of Sound Transit as Joni Earl was valiantly working to restore and build its credibility, I regularly and vociferously defended the agency and light rail on all the hostile talk shows, pretty much by myself. And, my piece said the following about the need to work all the modes, each doing what it can best offer.
Buses are the workhorses of transit. Even if the most ambitious Sound Transit light rail vision were ever achieved, buses would carry the vast majority of transit riders every day for the entire foreseeable future. The regional statistics put this point beyond debate.
Unfortunately, that fact is discomforting for an elitist ideology deeply entwined in today's transportation gestalt. A car at best is a necessary evil. A bus is always better than a car but not actually good. A rail car is good and better in every way than a bus.
That bias isn't helping. And it isn't even valid. The real question is what works best where. Carpools, vans, and ride share can be very important and should get more attention. Walking is a major transportation mode. There are places where rail will be cost-effective. And buses are crucial.
Anyway, how curious to see my piece condemned as a “fact-filled diatribe” and quickly dispatched with a bunch of cut-and-paste generalities out of the Sound Transit Book of Common Mantra. Without, so far as I can spot, offering one fact in rebuttal that actually touched on our transit needs and opportunities around Puget Sound.
Transit happens to be a very important issue worth getting right.
Especially for a huge hunk of sales tax increase.
I was not much moved by all those high-def textbook style reminders of what the modes do. I was , however, especially struck by the crucial takeaway:
Rail's ability to get commuters out of their cars could drastically improve our transportation mess.
That’s true. So there must be something very out-of-whack with the plan, because, as Sound Transit’s own numbers show (almost no measurable reduction compared to the in the “no built” scenario for miles to be traveled by cars in 2030), this plan won’t deliver on that feature of rail’s capability. If what we have been shown is the best the plan can do, it’s not enough. One wouldn’t even be swayed, for billions of dollars mis-spent, that “rail also offers a smoother ride.” We have to focus first and foremost on what combination of mode solutions best moves people, especially as we confront the energy/climate crisis.
And how to explain a big point you failed to mention, the actual Sound Transit pie chart that shows the biggest slice of benefits from this spending plan will be enjoyed by car drivers? If you know about that pie chart, and if you’ve looked at it, what do you say about it? Doesn’t that conclusion strike you as an odd outcome of a policy program to be voted on and paid for as a transit plan? (You seem to agree with me, and it’s always been my statement, that induced demand for highways is real; so then, since Sound Transit’s calculation of benefits says it isn’t real, it must be confusing to get comfortable with the numbers in Sound Transit’s benefit/cost report.)
I’ll pass over all the personal innuendo that substituted for a real engagement with the issues:
My “brazen” assertion that rail has no place in transit when my piece says exactly not that.
My “jealousy” about Sound Transit’s credibility after my years trying to help Joni Earl build it up. Actually, I’d like to make sure Sound Transit’s credibility is preserved, and right now it’s at some serious risk.
My failure to heed Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day as an adequate justification for the fact that the plan doesn’t do anything for years and years to come. What does Rome have to do with it? Saying Sound Transit is making a long-term investment (very long term!) doesn’t justify ducking the question of how to do deal with the crisis now before us.
My “breathtaking stupidity” to audaciously suggest that Sounder service in the Kent Valley contributes to sprawl because it helps smooth the way for long-distance commutes from all those sprawl subdivisions and shopping plazas we’re building in flat contradiction to smart growth principles. Do you want to drive from Sounder’s Kent Station to Maple Valley and talk to me about where to find “breathtaking stupidity?” If you think Sounder is a billion dollar rail system investment encouraging density, you’re in for a nasty shock when you actually check out the real world.
My “vendetta. . . “
Oh, the heck with it. Is there any fact you would like to contribute to counter the “fact filled diatribe” I offered as a way to get serious discussion of how to spend a king’s ransom of sales tax revenue on transit? Surely some progressive person that blogs at Northwest Progressive Institute could join a serious discussion of whether this plan is the best we can do.
Meanwhile, here’s a link to what the Environmental Defense Fund, a thoughtful progressive institution, is saying about these things these days. Check it out.

July 1, 2008 4:09 PM  
Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

Doug, even your first fact is wrong. If ST2 Link were built, Link and Sounder - our rail services - would carry more riders than every bus system in the region combined.

And you know perfectly well that's from understated ridership estimates for rail - just the housing starts in the last year in Seattle and Bellevue make the rail portion look even better. It's kind of ridiculous that you'd make these arguments - they come across as irrational ranting.

July 1, 2008 9:56 PM  
Blogger Jetgraphics said...

A good (but somewhat ungrammatical) examination of American rail by a European can be found here:

In short, due to Federal Railroad Administration rules, existing rights of way, taxation, and so forth, we can't expect to simply import rolling stock from Europe or Asia as the solution to our lack of rail mass transit.

July 2, 2008 1:13 PM  
Blogger jniles said...

Ben, on your point that ST rail services after expansion "would carry more riders than every bus system in the region combined," can you please tell readers the source on that claim?

I don't believe it, and here is why:

I have a computer modeling output spreadsheet from the regional planning agency, Puget Sound Regional Council, that distributes 911,000 daily weekday transit trips in 2040 under an aggressive land use densification scenario with 125 miles of light-rail (more than ST2) as follows:

Pure light rail trips 236,000
Mixed bus-light rail trips 108,000
Pure bus-only trips 567,000

As you can see, purely bus is almost twice purely light rail. Even if I take the trips that are partially light rail with a transfer to/from a bus, and add them to the light rail exclusively travel, the number still falls short of half the transit travel.

Are you perhaps talking about rail service to a limited set of destinations that would be served by rail, such as downtown Seattle?

The reason that I focus on all kinds of trips over the wider region is that (1) most daily travel in the region is not pure commuting to work, and (2) even for commuting, only a small fraction of total regional employment is planned to be in the parts of the region to be served by light rail.

In fact, with 125 miles of light rail and Sounder with a fully funded peak operating schedule, the average Puget Sound regional household is forecast by PSRC to have 30 minute access by transit to just one percent of the region's employment.

This is why Doug MacDonald and others are now focusing on how to make the existing expressway and road network more transit friendly -- this network already reaches everywhere, and simply must be re-engineered to be more friendly to transit. Better buses (not waiting too long for one to come, boarding quickly with an electronic ORCA card, having a seat, making red lights turn green) need to become the choice of more people. Buses can work over a wider geography than trains, serving wherever people choose to live in the region in the hunt for affordable housing, peace and quiet, choices in access to employment, retail, services, and recreation, and other reasons people choose to live where they want to live.

Gold-plated subways and train stations for a few people cannot come at the expense of good transit for the travel needs of the majority. The results of Prop 1 showed that. The agonizing of the ST Board over a Prop 1 light rail Do-Over is showing this now.

Buses work around here, even for urbanites who may pine for Manhattan and its subways. In my occasional late night runs out to Ballard from Belltown on the bus, I'm seeing more and more young travelers avoiding parking charges, gas prices, and (gulp, sometimes) police stops for cell use and DUI. No worries on the bus, Gus. No designated driver needed. Use your phone all you want. Please talk in a low voice.

Metro's coming RapidRide arterial service will work even better. RapidRide should have funding boosted up with some of Sound Transit's treasure. Better buses could come sooner, and in more places.

And you perhaps think Sound Transit's trains are more "progressive" than buses? Take a look at the web site of the LA Bus Riders Union for what has happened in one place where out-of-control rail expenditures displaced bus service, something that is on the verge of happening here.

July 2, 2008 5:20 PM  

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