When I write about rail, I’m often addressing an audience that has some root assumptions in common with me. I consider many of these assumptions to be common sense, but without having addressed them, I suppose it’s not reasonable to base arguments on them. With that in mind, what is it, what are the fundamentals upon which I base my interest in building rail mass transit – and my assertion that it should be your interest too?
First, a little about cities. Reading Jane Jacobs made me rethink the hazy mental distinction I had between towns and cities – and all the other forms and structures of urban settlement. She hits the root of the problem by addressing what causes cities to form: work. The jobs that create value and growth in our society are mostly those that take several types of simpler work, like making fasteners, and combine them into larger, more complex, as Jacobs says “new” work – like making a bicycle from parts. That bicycle is not only a new industry in itself, but it forces the evolution of all the simpler “old” work it’s based upon – as the final product is refined, its components are altered. Jacobs talks about cities as centers of new work – and towns and suburbs as places old work is pushed out to, effectively the support structures for new work.
Density, in cities, is how that old work is pushed outward. Innovation is generated by high density, as people are exposed to a high number and variety of new ideas. This innovation is what brings us higher quality of life. As new ideas become new businesses and create demand for space, the supporting work that is established but no longer growing so quickly ends up moving out of the core. This work moves to areas where real estate is cheaper, and fresh ideas are no longer needed for competitive innovation. These are the suburbs, and even rural towns.
This is where transportation comes into play. Since the late 1800s, we had street railways operating privately (and profitably). But starting in the beginning of this century, well before the federal fuel tax, the federal government started investing in roadways. As this was the largest part of the cost of using motor vehicles, the marginal cost for individual users dropped immensely when these new roadways opened – and when local and state governments started investing, individual vehicle ownership and maintenance became competitive with the cost of using the railways, simply because so much of the cost became tax-based. Governments could also use eminent domain to acquire property, so they weren’t paying the real estate costs of passenger rail companies. Combined with the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act’s strong regulation of railroads, the passenger railroads could no longer profit, and were easily competed into bankruptcy.

As we continued to build roads, we were no longer constrained by the profitability of transportation – arguably a good thing – but no balance was struck between cost and reduction of overcrowding, and the effects of enabling easy, cheap travel far from the city core were not understood. With major investment in interstate highways in 1956, the federal government’s investment policies created what we now call sprawl. Huge tracts of concrete were laid through city cores using eminent domain and without regard for social impact – because this work predated the Civil Rights Act, it largely impacted previously redlined minority areas.
These blanket investment policies resulted in only one transportation system surviving to serve most of the US – roads and highways, with the automobile upon them. Because competition was effectively eliminated – our roads and highways are now established and maintained to a basic level of service regardless of any market forces – the only places where the political will exists for mass transit are the very cores of cities. The false discussion frame that roads and highways “pay for themselves” has supplanted understanding: different amounts and locations of roadways have different costs, and would have to be priced differently from each other, and paid for at the time for any competition to exist – not to mention that the differing levels of infrastructure investment between roads and rails would have to be evened out first as well.
Wide roadways actually don’t compete well in the dense, innovative cores. Complete congestion occurs at a relatively low vehicle density – something that happens quickly in the cities with such high levels of US automobile ownership, a result of our nearly monomodal transportation system. While city centers can still grow, the curve of density from the center to the edge of an urban area becomes very flat – the overall effectiveness of the region drops as traffic comes to a standstill. We’re seeing this in Seattle today – we’ve really been seeing it for decades, but it’s finally beginning to threaten our prosperity. City streets can’t easily get wider when there are tall buildings in the way.

Rail is much more efficient. We knew this a hundred years ago – it was profitable and functioning well after private automobile ownership became available. While some roads can be profitable, this is only in limited circumstance – a toll road fed by many public roads benefits from those public roads and would not be profitable without them. Rail uses less space per person moved, important because urban real estate is generally the largest cost in a system, and can scale to far greater capacity than a roadway because it never sees human-induced congestion: the stop and go “traffic waves” caused by our individual decision making on the roadway. It also doesn’t have the hidden space requirement of parking – with a car-only infrastructure, income separation occurs partly because the real estate-based cost of private parking has the effect of pricing poorer workers out of the core, or making them depend on unreliable bus transit that has to share congestion with cars.
When I talk about how rail is necessary, it’s coming from an understanding that the fact that we *don’t* have rail now is a usurpation of the natural economic forces in the city, and that it’s slowing our innovation and our prosperity by flattening the density curve that provides those things. It costs much more to provide capacity into the city on roadways, and it costs more to provide infrastructure to the lower density, larger area that results from our congestion. Consider the cost of adding four or five lanes each way to Interstate 5 all the way through Seattle to the cost of building light rail: the former would likely be $50 billion or more in pure construction and right of way acquisition costs through the city, plus more necessary space for parking, not to mention all the new off-highway capacity that would be needed to serve all those cars – and all the travel on it during the weekdays would be congested immediately. The rail, on the other hand, taken in the same corridor with similar capacity, no requirement for parking, and consistent travel times, will cost less than $10 billion in the same year’s dollars.
The rail is obviously the more cost-effective option. Arguments that we “don’t have” those densities are already wrong, and will only become more wrong as we grow – and as fuel prices continue to increase. Common sense tells us we need more efficient ways of moving people to continue to compete in a global economy – and that’s what we’re doing.

13 Replies to “Common Sense”

  1. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I was already all for rail, but this really helps me better explain my position to others. Wow. Thank you so much for this post!

  2. Can you post data that shows how rail in Seattle and the surrounding region will reduce congestion and travel times if Proposition One is implemented? Saw the PI stuff, but there wasn’t much. Do you have studies that look at this?

  3. anonymous (the new anonymous):

    I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of congestion.

    We can’t, in the near future and in the context of building transportation infrastructure, reduce congestion for cars lower than the levels it’s at today. Nobody can. There are places all over the US where various agencies have tried, and they all fail miserably. Look at LA as one example – even with parts of I-405 at 14 lanes, it’s just as backed up as it is here.

    The key is, the light rail work will get so many people off the parallel highways that congestion *won’t* significantly increase. Car travel times will only increase by a couple of minutes in 2030, instead of by ten or twenty minutes (depending on the corridor). I think the P-I’s table here was quite clear in that one respect.

    Even ‘fixed’, the P-I’s table shows “transit” travel times – the 2030 numbers they show actually mean rail, and while they label their numbers as averages, those rail numbers are actually consistent – it’ll be pretty much exactly that much time every time.

    So, first let me point you to a study to read – basically just pointing out that highway lanes don’t reduce congestion:

    The FTA models estimate that Link Light Rail’s ridership will be over 300,000 per weekday in 2030 with the Sound Transit 2 expansion. Those estimates are conservative – the FTA approves these estimates with the understanding that if they’re way over, there are transit agencies out there that could run into financial problems as a result of low farebox revenue. Also remember that Sound Transit has an amazing bond rating – they likely wouldn’t if S&P or Moody’s thought ridership projections weren’t solid. They’re generally very low, like they have been in Minneapolis and Denver.

    But back to congestion. We’re going to have about a third of trips in the I-5 corridor on light rail (more than that north of downtown, a little less than that south of downtown). The P-I is sticking their fingers in their ears and screaming “My car trip will take just as long!” – but a third of the trips in the corridor will have no congestion at all.

    Nobody’s claiming that RTID/ST2 will reduce car congestion from today’s levels – but without it, congestion will increase much more rapidly. What I *am* pointing out, which should be patently obvious, is that the average congestion of all trips will go down. Too bad the local media won’t write a piece about that.

  4. Nobody’s claiming that RTID/ST2 will reduce car congestion from today’s levels – but without it, congestion will increase much more rapidly. What I *am* pointing out, which should be patently obvious, is that the average congestion of all trips will go down. Too bad the local media won’t write a piece about that.

    Why is this obvious, when by RTID’s own data, only a small percentage of drivers will leave their autos for rail?

    Let’s just talk data – where is the RTID study that supports your claim that average congestion will decrease? I haven’t seen anything like this. thx.

  5. Congestion is only caused by a small percentage of drivers, and a *large* percentage of *those* drivers in the corridors where light rail is being built will use rail. That should be obvious – peak throughput, northbound (including the express lanes) of I-5 at the ship canal bridge is about 14,000/hr, and 2030 light rail ridership at the same time, northbound will be 8800/hr. Is that a “small percentage” of drivers? No.

    You don’t need a study to use your brain. Stop parroting asinine opposition nonsense and engage me in discussion, or I will simply delete your comments.

  6. This is a well articulated common sense argument on rail transit and easily the best I’ve read to date. Your voice is worth hearing and I hope you keep speaking out. Thank you.

  7. I’ll say this, Common Sense is vacant for much of drivers. I was up in Northgate last night, and man… those people scare me. I swear, I feel very unsafe walking on sidewalks in suburban areas, nearly noone pays attention!

    That being said, a lot more people are riding Mass Transit. As younger people move here, as people from the east move here, they expect Mass Transit. They’re not used to cars. Ridership on Metro is up, Ridership on the LT will be higher than estimated.

  8. troy, I agree. The FTA models that give us the projected ridership are also quite conservative – they don’t take into account any change in settlement pattern, but we’re already seeing projects and zoning changes that will provide tens of thousands of new riders.

    The FTA doesn’t really pay attention to gas prices, either. They’ve been going up much faster than inflation for some time.

  9. I think the ST2 package would go a long way in gaining average citizen support if they would only post some details that the average citizen cares about.

    What will the travel times, service hours, etc. be? I can’t find them anywhere.

    Probably because they are not really planned. The monorail was not really planned – look what happend to it.

    You say the 2030 link line across the ship canal…. I say that line was promised to be up and running when? and for how much?

    This is what happens when there is a shortage of planning.

    But hey, rail solves all problems, so let’s just sign blank checks. I mean, surely, the government can handle it. They’re the ones who got us in this mess in the first place.

    Futher – comparisons to LA and NY and all of such talk that supporters are throwing out are total red herrings. We are no where near the size/density/anything of the two largest cities in the US.

  10. Will light rail pick me up at the front door of my house and drop me off at the entrance to my office building? Until that happens (or something close to it) the vast majority of Americans will never embrace mass transit. The commute time to and from transit stations adds so much time to the overall commute that the time-savings of mass transit are lost AND I can’t come and go at the time of my choosing, but am dependent on the transit schedule. Obviously, car commuting is not the solution, but neither is light rail or any other currently existent form of mass transit. Perhaps we should spend all our tax dollars on teleportation research instead. It can’t be any bigger waste of money than monorails, light rail, et al.

  11. I’m glad I found your blog. This is a great defense of mass transit in Seattle and in general.

    I think a lot of people are thrown off by the “1-2% of trips” statistic, which is misleading. And yet the same misleading statistics are almost never applied to the highway. OK, so I-5 carries 3% of trips in Seattle by the same metric (or whatever, I’m estimating.) It must be an unimportant route.

  12. anonymouses:

    “the 2030 link line across the ship canal”? We’ll cross the ship canal with UW by 2016, and Northgate by 2018. The UW was originally planned by 2006 – but materials and construction costs doubled. I’m sure you think Sound Transit should have known that was going to happen!

    If light rail picked you up at the door of your house and took you all the way to where you were going, for every trip of every day, you would be 400 pounds. Or haven’t you noticed the obesity epidemic is largely suburban?

    Light rail will get you very close for most of your trips, increasingly, as we build more. The key is that the destinations won’t be the same in the future – they’ll be on the rail lines, for the same reason they always were in the past.

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