Monday, November 24, 2014

The light rail con

Public Transit Is Going Extinct, But Toy Trains Still Snooker Cities

But are light rails and trolleys what we need to rebuild world-class American cities? The easy-going liberals of Portland relish that their city is consistently hailed as having a “world-class” transit system, complete with buses, light rail, and streetcars. Portland sent its first “sleek and modern Portland Streetcar“ on a maiden voyage in 2001.  Fans of the streetcar have declared the city’s light-rail system, “MAX Light Rail,” as (of course) world-class.


Some locals know that Central Link, Seattle’s first light rail line, was North America’s most expensive light rail at over $100,000 per yard when it opened in 2009. It serves less than 3 percent of total commuters, as only 3 to 4 percent of Seattle commuters get to work through mass transit. Apparently flush with cash in 2014, the City of Seattle will now shell out $10 million to study new streetcar lines. Yes, to study them. Mike Lindbolm of the Seattle Times writes, “At least four routes would be examined…all once served by streetcar tracks before the citywide system was abandoned in 1941.” Yes, abandoned. Did we ever stop to think that perhaps there was a reason for that? Like, say, the much niftier invention of trolley buses,  since as it turns out the invention of the wheel was all it’s cracked up to be?


Others simply buy into this myth that light rail and trolleys will somehow elevate their cities to the next level of sophistication—the very prospect of which is ignorant, at best, and self-indulgent, at worst.


The overwhelming evidence shows that these mass transit projects do little to improve our quality of life, in terms of easing congestion and expanding access to jobs and, despite popular perception, have no significant net environmental benefits since they rarely succeed in their express goal of removing cars from the road or decreasing congestion-induced idle times, a frequently cited contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions. As the satirical online newspaper The Onion reported, “98% of Americans favor public transportation for others.” That statistic may be fake, but we’ve all experienced the sentiment.

Even the writers of “The Simpsons” seem to understand the comical nature of light-rail adoption in American cities, brilliantly satirizing the salesmanship by transit authorities. The salesman, “Lyle Lanley,” begins by comparing the Simpsons’ town of Springfield to Shelbyville. “This is more of a Shelbyville idea,” he says slowly, turning his back to the crowd. “Now, wait a minute!” the Springfield mayor responds hastily, “We’re just as smart as the people of Shelbyville—just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it!


The four uprooted streetcar routes Seattle plans to study are no exception to this rule. In 1941, all of Seattle’s streetcars were replaced with trolley coaches, which are essentially buses that run along the same overhead wires as the streetcars did. The city quickly adopted the new technology, painfully aware that the current system was unsafe, unpleasant, and difficult to maintain. Bus engineering quickly developed into the types of free-range buses we use today, but the key transition was that of “rails to rubber,” which proved vastly more comfortable and easier to maintain.

Today, cities across the country have extensive bus systems with very low capital costs that largely meet the needs of their residents. Buses revolutionized transit for the better, offering much greater flexibility to quickly adapt routes and better serve riders. Despite being in use for over half a century, they are the cutting edge of mass transit technology at the urban level. “Modern” streetcars, on the other hand, may look sleek and appealing, but their core functionality is essentially the same as it was 70 years ago. They do not travel any faster than buses, increase congestion at intersections, take several years and millions of dollars to build, and for heaven’s sake they are literally and unalterably installed in the ground.


The same goes for light rail. “Light” stands for light capacity, meaning that railcars can carry only a few more passengers at full capacity (when have you ever seen that?) than the average three-car bus. Are we still to believe, despite over half a century of American buses proving their value over streetcars and light rails, that these luxury mini trains are a world-class investment?


The ridiculousness of the modern streetcar-light rail enthusiasm extends beyond the historical context. If you Google “light rail” images, you will quickly see a pattern develop. Most of the pictures are taken of the front of the rail, at a slight angle. Conveniently, this perspective hides the end car of the train, and the rail instead narrows out into a fine point somewhere along its length—a manipulation of imagery that deceives by omission. The train leaves bold strokes of blurred light in its wake as it sweeps through the photo, shedding its colors like the Starship Enterprise entering warp speed. The buyer—that is, the taxpayer—is led to believe he is getting quite a bit more bang for his buck.


Enthusiasts exclaim that tourists adore streetcars, based on the idea that the smoothness of the tracks, laid fresh on a repaved lane, and schnazzy colors of the streetcar and its tracks (and sometimes painted routes) make them more rider and tourist-friendly. But it doesn’t take a degree in city planning to figure out that you can achieve the virtually the same effect by properly maintaining the street (something we should expect from our municipalities, but don’t), spiffing up an existing bus, and painting it and the route in bold colors to reflect the bus’s path.


Given that the benefits of streetcars are not really specific to the streetcar model itself, when it comes right down to what it does for you as a rider—move you from point A to point B—it’s virtually indistinguishable from a bus. When capital costs, the salaries of transit employees (total executive earnings for Sound Transit are around $7.3 million, while union salaries for Portland’s Trimet top $195.5 million) the archaic technology, and the striking resemblance to buses are taken into account, light rail and streetcars seem much more like bureaucrat-sized toys than “world-class” investments.


Read the full article: Public Transit Is Going Extinct, But Toy Trains Still Snooker Cities

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