This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Perhaps contra serial catowner’s previous post, here’s an interesting theory about why rail construction these days is so suburb-heavy:

While local politics surely plays a role, in recent years getting money for new rail projects has required being able to show that the project will result in reduced travel time. Since reduced travel time requires some sort of grade separation, in a dense urban area this entails either subway, elevated, or massive eminent domain. All of those options are too expensive, so reduced travel time on a route requires finding a relatively non dense area with significant distance between stops. So the trains go to the burbs. That isn’t necessarily bad, and I’d say it’s good to the extent that land use rules around the routes change (too often they don’t), but it’s part of the reasons why new transit systems have a heavy suburban component.

We’re moving away from that standard at DOT under LaHood, but it’s how things have been.

I mostly agree with Atrios here, but I would add another layer to it. Metro areas themselves look vastly different than they did a few decades ago. In 1960, King County had twice the population of Seattle. In 2010, it has almost 4 times the population. The suburbs, especially here out West, have just grown exponentially in recent years while urban populations have remained constant. On the East Coast, many cities — like Atrios’ native Philly — have lost population. So of course the politics and balance of power is going to have an affect.

That said, I do think he has a compelling point: reduced travel time is easier to achieve in the ‘burbs. Combine that with the fact that transit projects can only get 20% of their funding from the feds, and you have a recipe for suburban-focused rail.

One Reply to “Suburban Rail”

  1. Actually, this is mainly congruent with my thinking on the matter. The Bush people tried to shift the long-standing ridership metric to a ‘time saved’ metric. The more miles of traffic-clogged freeway the transit rider avoids, the more time is saved. Of course, the real motive of the Bush gang was to deny applications on the ground that no time was going to be saved, and to change the focus of the discussion from the real reasons we build transit.

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