Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The New Transportation Fix is an Old Transportation Fix

Dallas-area interurban ad, circa 1918
I’m enjoying watching local governments spend lots of money on consultants to try and figure out how to alleviate the growing traffic problems and having those consultants pretend to study long and hard before determining that short-line rail is the answer.

That’s because in the early 20th century, a lot of people started moving to the suburbs to get out of the industrial big cities. Factories were springing up in every city, and with no pollution controls the quality of life began to drastically decrease. Those who could afford to move out to the emerging ‘burbs did so. But they still had to get into the city for many reasons, including work. Cars were mostly for the rich, although Henry Ford was beginning to change that. The then-common single-person transportation ways- horses and bicycles- were too slow.

Hmm, a burgeoning suburban population needing efficient transport into the big city but not by car. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The solution then, like the solution a hundred years later, is short-line commuter rail.

Mostly it’s known as commuter rail. Occasionally the agencies get fancy. In Marin and Sonoma County north of San Francisco it’s called the SMART train- Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit.
But what it is, when you get right down to it, is an up-to-date version of a romanticized part of rail service in the United States- the inter-urban.

The Inter-urban was the early 1900’s version of what’s happening now as rail slowly becomes recognized- I should say re-recognized- as the solution to the traffic mess around the country. Regular rail lines at the time were freight-oriented, as they are now (this, by the way, explains Amtrak’s dismal on-time performance. They’re running passenger trains on rails where freights have priority. This would be like 18-wheelers having freeway priority, and every time you saw one you’d have to pull over. Every. Time. Think about how many 18-wheelers you see on the highway every day. You wouldn’t get anywhere. That’s what Amtrak is up against). With the growing suburban population, many regional railroads built passenger-only electrified tracks and put streetcars on them. These then connected to the small city’s trolley lines to extend the routes.

Towns that you would never even think of having passenger rail had passenger rail when inter-urbans and trolleys were at their peak. From Lawrence, Kansas to Fairfax, California to Fort Smith, Arkansas to Nashua, New Hampshire, rail ruled suburban America. Chances are really good that your town had inter-urban or trolley service.

There are ways to figure this out without resorting to Google- at least immediately. Here’s Inter-urban sleuthing for dummies.

Phenomenal example of a too-wide four-lane road

Is there a former railway station that still exists and is now something else- most likely a coffee house or Asian fusion restaurant?

Do you occasionally see rail lines that clearly have not been used in years?

These are the obvious signs, even if you’ve never consciously put two and two together. But there are other, more subtle signals.

One is noticing that your town has dedicated bike paths that are not just painted lanes on the street. If so, chances are really good that the bike path was once an inter-urban or trolley line. Given how many dedicated bike paths have sprung up in the past 30 years across the country this is not a guarantee, but more often than not it is the case.

Chicago bike path example (1955/2015)
Secondly, an unnaturally wide boulevard or divided road that’s oddly bumpy because of different pavement gradients or really large things in the center splitting the lanes of traffic, whether that’s parking or trees or just a really wide grassy median strip.

In that case, there are two options. If it’s a four-lane divided road, it’s highly likely that the rail line ran on one side of the street, and the other side, instead of being two lanes in one direction, was a two-lane road. This possibility becomes patently obvious if one side of the boulevard abruptly ends at a coffee house or Asian fusion restaurant.  

The other option is that the rail line ran down the center of the road. This is the probable scenario if the road currently is too narrow to be a four-lane divided road, but just too wide to be a two-lane road. The trolley or inter-urban needed to have some extra space on either side of it, but not an entire extra lane. Essentially, when the trolley was running it became a three-lane road, and when the rail line was abandoned there was not enough space to make a four-lane road and have parking on either side of the street. Thus, the really wide center median and really wide lanes on either side.
San Francisco, unusually wide two-lane Valencia Street (1906/2012)

There is a third way to tell. It sounds more confusing to figure out than it actually does. And that’s if there’s a four-lane divided road with little parallel side roads that seem more like pull-outs, divided by curbs or unnaturally placed sidewalks.

If that road was built in the 1960’s there would have been no reason for five or six lanes of traffic divided by unnaturally placed sidewalks.

But if that road was built as the town was expanding in the early 1900’s, the layout becomes obvious: two dedicated rail lines on one side, a two-lane road on the other, and auxiliary roads on either sides where cars can pull over and park to use the shops.

Enough about history. The truth is that the inter-urban, or short-line rail, commuter rail, or whatever you want to call it, is the best solution to the traffic mess.

For those who claim self-driving cars are the solution, it isn’t. It may prevent accidents but it still doesn’t get cars off the road, it just changes the types of cars on the road. This is like claiming electric cars are the solution. Electric cars are still cars. So are self-driving cars. There may be less carbon pollution but there are still tires and every other automobile issue, including traffic.

Short-line rail gets cars off the street. Hundreds of them. At one time. Per trip. End of story. Have three 200-passenger trains, that’s 600 cars gone. Make it efficient enough that those 200-passenger trains make six one-way trips every two hours, that’s 1,200 cars off the road. Per train. With three trains, that’s 3,600 cars that aren’t on the freeway. Every two hours. That makes a big difference.

Right now, that probably doesn’t seem like a lot. But now imagine how much better things would be if there were 8,200 open parking spaces, wherever you are, in a typical 8-hour workday.

Now lots of anti-rail people who I talk to then ask me where those 8,200 cars will park so the drivers can get on the train. My answer is, this isn’t an airport. You don’t need 8,200 parking spaces in one spot. If there are eight stops on the line, and 25 people get on at each stop, there’s your 200-passenger train. But there aren’t going to be eight stops, there are going to be ten, or 12, or more. And those people aren’t going to all get to that station by single-passenger car. That’s what the bus or bicycles or other public transport are for.

This is another argument I hear a lot. “The buses aren’t going to the train stations!” Yeah, now they aren’t. Because there aren’t any trains running now. You’re telling me the city and county-run bus lines won’t add or modify routes so that buses can stop at city and county-run commuter rail stations? Governments might be ridiculous, but they’re not that dumb.

When people argue against commuter rail, I point to what the transportation “experts” said about BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit, the San Francisco subway, when they were trying to get it built.

Do you know what they said? They said BART would only be used three hours a day- during commute times. The other 20+ hours a day it would sit idle and nobody would take it.

Do you know that BART is now practically over-capacity every weekday now?

Do you know that BART wants to build a second tunnel under the bay to double capacity?

Do you now suspect that those transportation “experts” were paid by the auto companies?

Now, I’m not a complete foamer (that’s the term for passenger rail fanatics- the idea being they’re foaming at the mouth for more rail service). What I am is a realist.

Fact: There are too many cars on the road.

Question: How do you get people out of the cars?

Answer: You give them a convenient way to get where they’re going. I could give a damn if it’s rail or bus or boats or hovercraft. Rail just seems like the easiest solution, because 100 years ago when this exact issue came up it was the right answer, and I haven’t seen anything yet that tells me it can’t be the right answer now.

Now the timing of the trains is the other issue. I generally work till midnight. I have to drive because there are no real public transport options then. If the bus or train ran at midnight to where I need to go, I’d take it.

But that’s a story for another day. Let’s get the inter-urbans running again, and then we can get them running long enough into the night for guys like me.

photos: Dallas WWI interurban ad, hometownbyhandlebar.com. Chicago bike path, marmarinou.tumblr.com. San Francisco Valencia Street, sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com. San Anselmo, pinterest.com.