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Trade-offs necessary to make public transit feasible in US

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  • Christopher Miller
    Via Planetizen, a Los Angeles Times columnist on the cultural barriers to improving public transit in the US:
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 11, 2009
      Via Planetizen, a Los Angeles Times columnist on the cultural barriers
      to improving public transit in the US:



      U.S. public transit improvements will be a tough sell

      Kyodo News
      Japan�s transportation system, which includes bullet trains, could not
      be duplicated in the U.S. without massive trade-offs
      It won't be enough to lay down lots of track and hope people leap
      aboard trains and subways. It also will take discouraging the use of
      cars and making cities less comfortable.
      David Lazarus
      August 5, 2009
      It's hard to appreciate how truly pitiful our public transportation
      system is until you spend some time with a system that works.

      Over the course of two weeks in Japan, I rode just about every form of
      public transit imaginable -- bullet trains, express trains, commuter
      trains, subways, street cars, monorails and buses. Nearly every ride
      was smooth, on schedule and affordable.

      The only glitch came when a major thunderstorm forced one train I was
      taking through the mountains of Kyushu to be delayed for safety
      reasons. Anguished railway employees repeatedly apologized for the
      inconvenience and said there'd be no charge for the remainder of the

      So I have to wonder: Is it possible we could ever have anything even
      remotely similar here?

      "It can happen," said Martin Wachs, director of transportation, space
      and technology for Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. "But it will only
      happen over a long period of time and will require a number of policy

      Specifically, it won't be enough to just lay down lots of track and
      hope people will leap aboard trains and subways. You also have to
      discourage the use of cars -- which most Americans won't stand for --
      and make our cities considerably less comfortable.

      Good luck with that.

      Los Angeles County is attempting to improve its public transportation
      with tax money from Measure R, which was approved by voters in
      November. The half-cent sales tax increase is intended to raise as
      much as $40 billion for a laundry list of projects, including a long-
      awaited "Subway to the Sea."

      However, sales tax revenue is way down because of the crappy economy,
      and it's an open question when work will begin on many of the projects
      on the Measure R wish list -- and where the money will be found to
      finish that work once it gets started.

      California faces similar funding issues now that voters have approved
      Proposition 1A, which allows the state to borrow nearly $10 billion to
      get the ball rolling on a high-speed rail line between Southern
      California and the Bay Area.

      The planned 800-mile system would, in fact, cost tens of billions of
      dollars more than that. How much more, nobody knows for sure.

      Similar projects are planned or have been proposed nationwide.

      Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies,
      said the hardest part isn't constructing the infrastructure for a
      world-class public transit system. It's creating the necessary
      incentives to get Americans out of their cars.

      "We now keep the cost of driving as cheap as we possibly can," Taylor
      said. "As long as we do that, we won't be able to make public
      transportation work."

      He said investments in transit projects need to be accompanied by
      policies designed to make driving costlier and thus make public
      transportation more attractive.

      These policies include significantly higher charges for parking
      virtually wherever you go and the increased use of toll roads.

      New York demonstrates the viability of this notion. Who'd even
      consider the hassles of driving and parking in Manhattan when you can
      take the subway instead?

      Taylor also believes that gas taxes need to go way up, with much of
      the money used to fund transit resources. Higher prices at the pump
      could be offset by a modest reduction in sales taxes.

      The net result, he said, would be more limited use of cars for
      everyday activities and increased ridership of public transportation,
      which, in turn, would help generate revenue for additional transit

      This is a big part of the formula that the Japanese used for their
      system and also is the one pursued by most European countries.

      "If we don't put these policies in place here, people will look at our
      current investment in public transportation 10 years down the line and
      say what a waste it was," Taylor said. "And then we'll start investing
      again in roads."

      David Boyce, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental
      engineering at Northwestern University, said another key piece of the
      puzzle is land use. Americans prefer low-density communities and large
      lots for their homes.

      This may be swell from a quality-of-life perspective, but it's an
      enormous challenge for public transportation, which requires
      relatively large numbers of people moving from point A to point B on a
      daily basis to be profitable.

      To address this, Boyce said, construction of new rail networks must be
      accompanied by a commitment to higher-density cities and suburbs in
      the form of more condos and apartment buildings near transit hubs.

      It also requires dense clusters of office buildings and retail outlets
      that represent the jobs and stores people want to reach.

      The way things currently stand, jobs and homes are spread so far and
      wide, it's almost impossible to imagine getting around many
      metropolitan areas without a car. As a result, public transit is
      perceived by many people as impractical and inconvenient.

      "It's not a lost cause," Boyce said. "We can turn this around. But we
      need to address land-use issues if we're going to do it."

      I hate to be cynical, but I simply can't imagine political leaders at
      the local, state or federal level telling voters that they support a
      big increase in gas taxes, sky-high parking fees and high-density

      So don't hold your breath for a public transportation system that
      rivals what our friends abroad enjoy. It's not going to happen -- at
      least not until a majority of us agree that we're prepared to accept
      the trade-offs necessary to bring about such a wholesale change in how
      we live and travel.

      Until then, we'll always have Paris.

      And Tokyo.

      David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or
      feedback todavid.lazarus@....


      Christopher Miller
      Montreal QC Canada

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