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.