There’s More to Life than Transit Expansion

Cities in the United States are almost universally lacking in adequate transit provision, both in terms of capacity and services provided. These limitations are at least partially to blame for the limited use of public transportation by Americans and inform the primary focus of this website, the expansion of bus and rail networks from coast to coast.

It is from this perspective that I disagreed so adamantly last week with Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, who has argued that transit systems must prioritize ensuring adequate support for existing services while cutting down on major extension plans for rapid transit. Despite the great costs involved, our transportation infrastructure is so weak that we have no choice but to invest in both expanded operations and the construction of new lines — in most cities. The federal government has a responsibility to play a major role on both those fronts.

Yet my previous discussion — and most of what I write here — are unfortunately remiss in their general indifference to the needs of communities too small, too sprawling, too un-urban to ever benefit seriously from the new transit systems I extoll weekly.

I want to make clear as I write this that that neglect is primarily a consequence of the focus of this website on dense inner cities. But I am troubled by the feeling that my writing is giving off the incorrect impression that I either do not recognize the existence of places outside of urban cores or that I simply do not care to think of ways to approach their problems.

On the contrary.

While I have no intention of reframing The Transport Politic entirely towards addressing the transportation dilemmas faced by the inhabitants of suburban and rural communities, I pledge to make more of an effort to incorporate them seriously in my thinking and writing on the issues discussed here. There are, after all, far more people in the United States living outside of center cities than in them.

This means a greater recognition of the fact that transit cannot provide universal mobility any time soon, and that automobiles will continue to provide an important role in connecting disparate populations. This means a renewed focus on the neighborhood as the essential building block in constructing a more livable city. This means an intense examination of where transit works and where its usefulness falls apart.

As much as I believe I have a responsibility as someone who dissects transportation issues day in and day out to better recognize the varying needs of the broader population, however, I am equally convinced that other members of the mobility field must do the same. The heavily auto-oriented interests of state departments of transportation, AASHTO, and other industry lobbies generally intent on simply magnifying the existing status quo are collectively failing to imagine different and better ways for our society to move about.

Those who call for continued massive investment in automobile lanes simply because that’s how people get about today are refusing to recognize the possibility of an alternative future. Those who do so are ignoring the massive and negative social consequences of the dependence on private vehicles that we just can’t kick.

Their continued obsession with highway expansion may be addressing more directly the mobility needs of suburbanites today than are my repeated calls for better buses and rail, but that roads focus will do nothing to improve the nation’s environmental sustainability or aid in its distribution of the movement of as broad a segment of the population as possible. These overarching goals — applicable to all Americans — cannot be ejected out the tailpipe in favor of some populist sentiment in favor of car infrastructure.

The fact of the matter is that we ought to strive to be a multi-modal society and we should be multi-modal people. We must fulfill our collective transportation needs in the most appropriate ways in each situation, at a pace that avoids unnecessary dogmatism.

42 replies on “There’s More to Life than Transit Expansion”

I think many people underestimate the potential to have rail transit reaching into the suburbs. For example Berlin’s S-Bahn, a mix between commuter rail and rapid transit, has many lines that terminate in small communities that have about 30.000 people living in them, each. All these lines provide constant service every 20minutes between 4am and 1am. While it is true that these small communities have gone through 100 years of transit oriented development, meaning their structure is often centered around that terminus station, this also seems possible because many people actually take the train.

There are ways to connect suburbs to transit, even if they are not very dense. For example Bogota has started providing large bicycle stations for like 700 bikes around the stops of their Transmilenio system. This allows people to flow into the stations without relying on inefficient feeder busses.

Another often overlooked way is the potential to use on-demand transit. This form of transit does not exist at the quality of service it would be possible using modern information technology, which is unfortunate. But it could also provide a more effective solution to feed from subways onto rail lines.

In the end of the day transit advocates are fighting the war on the car. And also the fight against sprawling destroying any hope of creating sustainable cities, and for the hope to ween our societies off oil. Within this context (the current reality) the car is going to be part of the modal mix for a long time to come. From my point of view, admitting the necessity of the car to serve the needs of rural/less urban communities sounds like an appeasement to some of the destructive forces which attempt to perpetuate our car-society. This feels like the surrender of the belief that individualized transportation is an evolutionary dead-end.

Having spent some time in a small (about 50,000 residents) town in Germany north of Hamburg and just outside of Hamburg’s S-Bahn system (but still served by frequent DB Regio trains), the success of the story is not simply access to the rail station, but by having a variety of modes available – well designed boulevards, access to an Autobahn, good bike paths and bike lanes, and a bus system that serves the entire town and its “suburbs” – including a small town I lived in of just under 1,000 residents with 30 minute bus service to the larger community.

A friend of mine harks from a town in the islands north off the coast of Scotland, a small town of under 9,000 – and it has a functional bus transit system and even a transit center where all of the bus lines converge. Being on an island, there is no rail service but a small airport and ferry service to the mainland.

Here in the U.S., we don’t even have functional bus systems in most areas; those that often do exist are “dial-a-ride” services that are inherently disused by the general public; they often have very limited operating hours (9 AM-4 PM, weekdays only, for example); and getting information on how to use the system is difficult – not to mention having to plan a trip one or more day in advance.

The “fad of the day” seems to be rail – we have to build rail; it’s what every other country does. But as I just demonstrated – it’s NOT what every other country does. Not every tiny town has a Streetcar system; light rail is really a U.S./Canadian invention to try and meld several European technologies into one Frankenstein type rail system; and “high speed rail” is being contemplated for — commuter rail? Huh?

A small town can start a fixed-route or route-deviation bus system for under a million bucks – and often a fraction of it. A Freightliner or Dodge Sprinter in a passenger transit configuration is about $75,000 and will work fine in small communities (not to mention the are less wieldy than the atypical Eldorado National Aerotech minibus that seems to be popular in my area for everything from the airport rental car shuttles to paratransit to small community fixed-route to churches, parks & rec buses, and retirement homes.) Smaller “real” buses like the Optima Opus, the Eldorado EZ-Rider II and similar have proven successful in larger communities on neighborhood routes.

We can talk about building transit-oriented neighborhoods, but what about the neighborhoods that already exist? Are they simply told that they cannot have transit? Or are we too afraid to even try? Or is it that we’re so fascinated with expensive rail systems that we’ll not just not try to build ridership – and fare paying ridership at that – but we’ll also strip away what transit service they already do have on their main streets?

Out of curiosity — did these systems in Germany and Scotland also handle school students? One thing we do have in the U.S. are massive school bus networks that reach everywhere. I wish we could use these school networks as launching points for transit systems, but the near-mandatory segregation between children and adults we have in our society these days makes that complicated.

There’s also the problem that these buses are typically noisy (my biggest issue with buses and diesel trains in general), smoky, and usually not ADA-compliant (are these things exempt?)

Amen – great point about adult-children segregation. In Chicago high-school and some younger kids ride CTA bus service to school, particularly in non-white areas (middle/upper middle white families mostly bail on the city due to fears about racial mixing in schools, etc). The small town (+/- 20,000 in central built-up area, an additional 10k in rural hinterlands, also with shared school/commuter bus) I lived in in Sweden had school year city bus service which served the elderly and school kids. There was regional bus service to the next town, which was a shopping mecca, and brought residents to our town, which had the main regional train station. It worked well, though lacking service in summer.

Partially answering my own thought, I came across this study which seems to show a good amount of benefit from integrating school bus and city transit networks, including an overall reduction in costs as compared with operating independent school bus and transit systems. However, FTA rules regarding disbursement of operating funds can make things complicated. Also, while some systems are open to the general public, riders in some communities need to pass criminal background checks(!) in order to ride alongside students.

Thanks for this post Yonah. I think here you captured part of the reason why those of us advocating for new transportation policy are often seen as extremist car haters. It is easy to focus on inner cities where large, sexy transportation projects are constantly under construction or being planned. I applaud your promise and hope this new direction in your thinking will allow our brand of transportation policy suggestions to become more mainstream.

Even beyond S-Bahns, trains can serve low-density areas. The regional services in Germany, Switzerland, and Japan provide a decent model. However, those trains provide basic mobility; they don’t function as the dominant form of transportation in rural areas as in cities.

I don’t think we can avoid telling encouraging stories about places that are working fairly well from a sustainability standpoint, and in North America those are inner cities and the occasional university town.

We can certainly talk about the intensity of rural service in Switzerland, say, but we also have to recognize that these networks are the results of many decades of commitment — not to mention high national affluence and willingness to route some of that money into public infrastructure. We can’t expect those kinds of outcomes in North America anytime soon, and shouldn’t encourage unrealistic hopes for them.

We can, however, offer basic mobility options to all urban areas, plus more intense capacity-driven options in urban cores. But they mostly won’t be trains.

There are actually even more aspects in the relatively high service quality in rural Switzerland:

• An integrated ticketing system; essentially all participating operators are part of the Swiss ticketing system, allowing to create tickets from any place to any other place in Switzerland, no matter which and how many operators are involved.

• Highly coordinated schedules; whenever possible, connections are properly planned and quite fast (a 15 minute connection is considered lame…). Many rural bus routes join at a center, and provide connections between each other, making changing a no-hassle issue.

• The Swiss General Pass (Generalabonnement): A pass allowing travel on all participating operators (which actually cover about 95% of the network; some cableways or other mountain lines are not participating), for a month or a year, at a very attractive price (about CHF 3500 in second class; about CHF 5500 in first class). This Pass is a consequence of the integrated tariff system, mentioned in the first item.

• The half-price card: Who does not travel enough to justify a General Pass most likely has a half-price card, which gives a 50% discount on any (with exceptions in city transit) ticket. For a price of CHF 150 per year (that’s about USD 130 nowadays), this is pretty attractive; no wonder there are about 3 million half-price cards issued (Switzerland’s population is about 7 million).

• Financing models (this is a political/organizational issue, and requires some understanding on the soverignity of municipalities, cantons and the federal level. In short, municipalities have a wide range of not so much economy-dependent sources of income.

• Political stability: The Swiss style of democracy (which is very direct) is made for continuity (because its core is finding the best possible compromise). Continuity is important for long-term investment and develoment. It is impossible that a single person can overturn everything decided in the past.

• Planning legislation: Planning is anchored on federal and cantonal level, which superseedes local level. It goes that far that permissions for building shopping centers are only granted if they are connected to public transportation, and they must ensure that a certain percentage of the visitors actually use public transportation (one way to do that is setting parking fees accordingly).

The fact of the matter is that we ought to strive to be a multi-modal society and we should be multi-modal people.

it’s not that i find this statement objectionable, it’s just more like…’eh, who cares about multi-modalism?’

should we be striving for a multi-modal society, or is that really irrelevant? I say ‘irrelevant’. our society will probably end up being multimodal, but I don’t think that’s something we should necessarily strive for — just seems kind of arbitrary to me.

what _is_ relevant, i would argue, is that we allow people to move around under their own power — walk, bike, whatever. this allows people some measure of self-determination — allows them all that affords, like economic opportunity, but it also allows them to hold onto their dignity. we shouldn’t force people to either buy a car or be dependent on the State, as we do now. allowing folks to walk and bike won’t solve all of our transportation problems, but it’ll drastically reduce the severity of our problems, and probably make them quite easy to solve, relatively speaking. big bike stations, for instance (as previously mentioned), are awesome. allow people to walk and bike places, in safety, in comfort, with dignity, and we’ll be _well_ on our way to the transportation promised land — and that applies to communities big and small.

The sprawl, roads and cars are really an artifact of having decades of cheap and abundant gasoline. Without the cheap gasoline, the model simply doesn’t work well.

My interest in transportation alternatives is to try and envision and prepare for a future where gasoline isn’t as abundant as it used to be. Where we can all get around without having to get into a car.

The defenders of the status quo are essentially assuming that there will be a continued availability of cheap energy. I view that as highly unlikely.

Good points here. I think one of the topics that gets too little play is examples (or clear opportunities) here in the States is how an urban transportation mentality can be retroactively applied to existing suburban America. I think for many (most?) citizens who live in the burbs, hearing the Utopian visions outlined by transportation advocates sounds completely unfamiliar, impractical and foreign. That disconnect between those visions and the manner in which most Americans actually get around undermines the fact that there actually are real opportunities to improve existing cities/suburbs/rural areas. I don’t think we should change our ultimate aspiration; rather we should be helping people see practical improvements and some steps on how to get from here to there.

I look at where I live, and it doesn’t need a transit expansion – it needs a transit reorganisation. The routes have been tweaked repeatedly as the urban area expands, and it now needs a complete fresh start. However, “re-do the routes!” is not neally as sexy as “light rail!”.

I think you should write about what you’re passionate about. The name “Transport Politic” sets out a hugely ambitious goal. I simply isn’t realistic for one person to cover it all. More diversity of topics would always be fine of course but I wouldn’t be afraid to keep writing about what you know best and care most about.

I also think that sometimes they big, expensive city projects get a lot of press. I currently live outside Chicago but am originally from Southern Illinois. I have seen some good examples of transit in very rural areas such as Southern Illinois.

For example The RIDES district, serving the eastern half of Southern Illinois has bus routes that connect to Amtrak trains from Chicago. Not very interesting but a good start for a very rural area. But the interesting idea is a river taxi on the Ohio river connecting the small towns with multiple departures during the day, see link below, during the spring, summer, and fall. Tourists use it but it is a good idea of a low cost transit idea that would work well in other rural areas.

I view a blog such as this as focusing on making life palatable after oil gets too expensive to live the inefficient suburban lifestyle we have adopted these past 50-60 years, not that one shouldn’t be arguing against it anyways because most of it is soul sucking garbage.

This triggers a few thoughts for me. First, how small can we go with transit? How big does a town need to be to start a bus route? 30,000? 10,000? 5,000? 1,000?

Second, I wonder how many cities and towns in the U.S. were founded back before the car became so dominant. My hometown was started as a stop along the railroad, back when trains still needed to stop frequently to pick up water and fuel, and each stop had a grain warehouse for the local farmers. While passenger trains last stopped there 60 or 70 years ago, the rail line still exists along with the grain elevator, and there’s still a lumber yard in the vicinity. Some of the nearby homes seem impossibly tiny today, but that’s the fingerprint transit-oriented development, 19th-century style.

Unfortunately, in the last decade when we’ve been renewing interest in denser communities, my hometown shifted its city hall to the edge of town, the former grocery store (which had been across the street from the old city hall) moved out to the highway, and they even put in a “golf community” with gigantic houses on gigantic lots and a totally impractical street layout.

I think the “small town feel” that Americans claim to treasure so much comes from the cores of these old towns, which were built more densely out of necessity. But cheaper land out at the edges and developers/speculators who pushed for bigger houses and lawns have mangled these places into unnavigable messes. Apparently we all want our own full-size football field in our backyard, and the developers are all too happy to push in that direction. But a single family doesn’t make a football team. Much better to make a denser community around a park where you could put that football field if you wanted, because that’s the only way you’ll get the team members to go with it.

Getting that idea drilled into the heads of big-city planners is relatively easy, but getting it spread out to every county, township, and village in the country is a difficult proposition.

>How big does a town need to be to start a bus route?

I think this is the core of the problem with transit in the US: the notion that it is supposed to supply mobility within a community, instead of between them. Any town with a corridor of commercial activity can support a bus route along that corridor, however, any town with even a small cluster of development along train tracks can support a single train station on an intercity line.

>My hometown was started as a stop along the railroad

The overwhelming majority of towns in the continental US either were started along railroads or were built before railroads and subsequently served by them. Reopening these intercity routes, with a baseline of about 8 trains per day in each direction, would be relatively cheap (compared to urban transit projects) and would provide meaningful transit to almost the entire country. Imagine a town with just 500 people. In all likelihood, this hypothetical town is clustered around a railway line, which in turn would run between two fairly large (but distant) cities. If the demand for travel between those cities amounted to, say, 20 trains per day, it would be very easy to stick a station in this small town and have it be served by up to 20 trains per day! Not because the town itself has enough people to warrant it, but because it can benefit from the economic activity of its larger neighbors.

I’m most familiar with the railways of Japan, but this is how a lot of the rural lines work. They don’t replace cars–the only thing that can really replace cars is cleaner cars–but they do provide a convenient and efficient method of intercity travel that is available 7 days a week, all year. The service frequency is almost never below 10 trains per day in each direction–compare this to America, where even major cities (I’m looking at you, Houston) can have as little as 3 trains PER WEEK in each direction.

There’s plenty of room for improvement, and the important thing to remember is that transit is, indeed, not the exclusive privilege of urban centers, but that it can serve virtually anywhere in the country.

Well, my hometown does have a limited amount of transit service by the “corridor” definition — there are three round-trips of commuter buses each weekday feeding into a city of 100,000 ten miles away. That line is part of a network of 7-10 routes (depending on how you count) serving about 30 cities. I was actually rather impressed when I mapped it out.

The process of mapping that system and others I’ve looked at underlined to me that there are many layers of transit in the U.S. to build upon, from dial-a-ride to commuter buses and trains to transit buses and streetcars/light rail/heavy rail to intercity bus and rail. These networks are rather flimsy and sparse in terms of coverage and transit frequencies, but they exist. Unfortunately, we tend to look at one transit system in one city at a time — there isn’t a nice way to bring up a map of a city, state, or the whole country and see all of these layers at once. Small transit agencies might not have websites, or if they do they might not be able to provide decent maps or schedules.

In my hometown’s case, 3 round-trips only on weekdays and exclusively morning inbound and evening outbound doesn’t cut it, and the fares for single trips are rather astronomical (the monthly pass fare is acceptable at less than half the cost). Their website is only moderately informative, so I had to interpret incomplete maps and schedules to put together a whole picture.

I think states and regions need to get these disparate transit systems to integrate better. Provide frameworks for building websites (or ideally, sections of one big regional website) and making schedules so it’s easier for small agencies to be visible in their communities. I also think the concept of dial-a-ride as only for the handicapped and elderly has to be done away with.

It is all about frequency. And clever pricing doesn’t hurt, either. I’m in Vienna, heading to Salzburg tomorrow and have been told not to bother buying tickets in advance (unthinkable in the UK for longer journeys), and not to even bother with the schedules as there’s a train every half hour. Of course, if I want to be geeky, I will plan to a schedule as the new Railjet services (flashier German website) currently run only every 2 hours – but cost the same as any other service between the two cities (less than €50). Even better – if I don’t have time to buy tickets before, I can apparently buy them on the train without penalty. Bliss.

Which services are the easiest to run depends on how good the government regulations are. If the FRA weren’t so bad to passenger rail, it would cost almost nothing to have those 10-times-daily services nationwide. Maybe a couple of freight mainlines would not have room, but fortunately those mainlines are mostly in sparsely populated territory. Elsewhere, technology and capacity aren’t problems; the FRA is. This is the model to follow, but so far it’s illegal in the US.

Many rail lines USED to serve small towns in Oregon (and elsewhere), quite a few of these have been abandoned and the tracks taken up. I can think of many nearby towns with a street called “railroad avenue”–if you look carefully, you can see remnants of the right-of-way in many places.

One issue here is that railroads are often subject to property taxes, or run on easements–both of which tend to encourage railroads to abandon them if not sufficiently productive.

And one other FRA-ish problem: Many branchlines and spurs are dark (no signalling) or FRA-exempt, making it difficult if not impossible to run passenger services of any sort on them.

It doesn’t have to be difficult. For many levels of service, there doesn’t have to be more than one train on the tracks. For example, the Medford-Ashland service proposed in the site I link to calls for just one train running back and forth.

If the ROW exists, then the cost of rebuilding is not high. New Jersey, hardly a paradigm of low cost, is restoring the Lackawanna Cutoff at a cost of about $3.5 million per km, including stations. At-grade low-speed rail outside urban areas doesn’t cost much to build; the bulk of the cost is infrastructure (e.g. grading), and if the ROW is there, the extra cost is minimal.

Rogue Valley Transportation District runs busses half-hourly in the region; a trip from Ashland to Medford right now takes about 40 minutes–12 minutes longer than the proposed rail line. While the CORP branchline is in good shape in the Rogue Valley, the railroad in question isn’t the most cooperative in the world (it likes to threaten to abandon its tracks to try and blackmail the state into paying its bills for it).

And, as it is an active freight line, interference with freight ops would be an issue: WES up in the Portland area is presently limited to morning and evening service due to the P&W needing the tracks for their operations in the midday. (Of course, if it weren’t for the FRA regs requiring 2-man crews and DMUs build like tanks, WES might not be such a drain on TriMet’s coffers…)

But yeah–if you could run low-weight DMUs with a single crewperson, it might be a good corridor. Extension of the service west to Grants Pass would be logical, though the rail line is probably too curvy for Class 3 operation.

interference with freight ops would be an issue: WES up in the Portland area is presently limited to morning and evening service due to the P&W needing the tracks for their operations in the midday

Not true; P&W active routes freight trains in the middle of WES operations. I have stood on WES platforms twice waiting for a WES train and had a P&W freight train, completely with bright orange GP39-2s come right at me; not to mention having waited for freight trains at crossings in the middle of WES operations. I hear P&W freight trains in the middle of WES operations from my Tigard home (considering that I’ll hear so many whistles at WES time, and I hear half of the whistles, of a different horn style, for a freight.)

In fact, in the STB filings, TriMet has a mid-day operating window (I would link it but the STB site is down right now), I believe between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM, but simply does not use it.

Regardless…TriMet doesn’t have the money to run more trains (without cutting more bus services which it seems happy to do), and the ridership of WES doesn’t warrant more service when the average load factor of a train is about 25% (of a single-car train).

if you could run low-weight DMUs with a single crewperson

Now THAT is an issue – the FRA will not allow it (either the “low-weight DMU”, unless you have total freight/DMU separation, or the one-man crew – simply a non-starter.) There is only one such operation in North America and it’s in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Unless, as it sometimes happens, that the person who owns the ROW and decided not to run trains on it any more has cluttered it up with utility easements. Then it costs a fortune to relocate all those utilities out of the way.

In the Great Lakes, the size that a town needs to be to start a bus route could well be larger than the minimum size needs for local public transport.

Given an upgrade to our antiquated FRA regulatory structure, for many small towns it would be possible to lay a small stretch of streetcar track to connect to a rail corridor on both sides, and have a tram-train running through town and continuing to the next destination … since the smaller the town, the easier it is to get around the town on foot and by bike, and the higher priority connections outside the town become compared to connections within the town.

Salt Spring Island, with a pop of 10,000 has multiple bus routes connecting the various ferry terminals with the largest town. There’s a map and schedules here:

It means you can leave downtown Vancouver or Victoria and travel to downtown Ganges without needing a car. (Of course, you could just take a float plane from downtown Vancouver to downtown Ganges and not need to take any transit whatsoever but that’s probably not the most environmentally friendly route – though it is wonderfully scenic. Please excuse me while I go plant a bunch of trees…)

I grew up in rural Canada. We could take the train daily into big centres and even get off at any stop along the way.
This service was stopped decades ago.
After living and working in Montreal I moved to the countryside to raise my children. To get into the city, I drove my car to the nearest train station. So enjoyable to pass the traffic backed up on bridges and roads as we chugged quickly into the city and central station.This service no longer exists.
Auto corporations had there way with us. We suffer.

The fact of the matter is that we ought to strive to be a multi-modal society and we should be multi-modal people.

This is not a “fact.” It’s just your personal preference. Telling people that you think they ought to support higher public spending on transit and that they ought to use transit more probably isn’t going to get you very far. As long as car travel continues to provide huge advantages over mass transit in terms of travel time, convenience, comfort, flexibility, and so on, people will probably continue to overwhelmingly favor cars, as consumers and voters.

But those huge advantages are due to massive subsidies given to cars. So saying “as long as cars offer these advantages provided by hidden subsidies people will favor cars” is no argument at all against raising the subsidy provided to other forms of transit to equivalent levels.

The answer is “railroad suburbs.” People still pay premium prices to live in them. L.A. is a constellation of about 85 of them. Just bring back the trains to connect them…

The problem still remains the 1.3 people on average inside each car and the parking spot for the 2 tons of metal, rubber, and plastic (which takes up more real estate than a typical office cubicle). Whether the destination is a park-n-ride or downtown, the space required for one single car is enormous.

However, park and ride has the advantage of saving on space wasted for parking at the destination … since when people drive into the office, those that pop out for lunch have to have a parking space there, and those that stop halfway home for something have to have a parking space there as well.

Almost any public transit (any mode, any route, any population density, any frequency) can exist IF it can be paid for. So far, the American taxpayer has generally not indicated a willingness to do so at a level that will keep fares reasonable. Until the auto option becomes extremely costly, public transit simply will not happen to a large degree. (And when the auto option reaches that point, there will also be a fairly quick shift in land use where locations with good public transit become the highly valued locations.) On the other hand, if the auto option remains viable (electric cars?), there will be no shift.

The comments about highways being subsidized are true. There is a USDOT website (and series of publications) called “Highway Statistics.” All manner of informationis there in different forms. For now, we’ll look at finance, specifically Table HF-10, “Funding for Highways and Disposition of Highway-User Revenues, All Units of Government.”

Basically, this is a consolidated report on all levels of road taxation and spending, federal, state, and local. All these units, combined, spent a little over $182 billion on highways in 2008, but only collected $94 billion in fuel taxes and tolls. That’s only 51%; the remaining 49% came from property taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, and so on. That’s a subsidy of something like $88 billion, or 11 times that of the recent high-speed rail awards, and works out to a little over 50 cents per gallon.

At that, this is just a cash-flow figure, and doesn’t tell the whole picture. It doesn’t account for other costs, such as deferred maintenance, poor construction, poor design, and external costs such as air pollution, unrecovered accident costs, and, let’s be honest, a couple of wars that are at least partially about oil. My seat-of-the-pants guess is that gasoline really costs about $7 per gallon right now, which is paid not just at the pump but in your income tax, sales tax, property tax, car insurance, and so on. Oh, and let’s also remember that we have had to bail out the federal highway trust fund for the last couple of years. . .

The truth is, gasoline is too cheap, and has been actively kept that way to promote driving (and road-related profits, including those of the auto industry, oil industry, and the road-building industry). If we priced roads properly (and, as an essential component, cut the other taxes), we would soon have transit, particularly by rail, in business as a for-profit line again. (It’s not profitable now because the game is rigged against it.) Bring that about, and we not only will have trains and trolleys back, but we won’t need so much in the way of roads and cars. We would find it worthwhile to bring back not just the local trains mentioned by some other commentators above, but we could well bring back the old interubans, too. In fact, it’s quite amazing to see what we had for rail transit, and where some of it went, back about 1910 or 1920.

We would also reduce the crazy people of the Middle East to just crazy people in the Middle East–no more money for terrorists’ tribute!

In a related matter, we also need a different way to charge for highways as well. The funding mechanism is broke now. A fixed price per gallon (with no index for inflation as a percentage would have) made sense back when everyone drove Stovebolt Chevys and Flathead Fords, and it still made sense when everyone was drving small blocks, Y-blocks, and wedge-heads (GM, Ford, and Chrysler-Plymouth V-8s), but it falls apart even if you just get a bunch of 4-cylinder cars in the mix, and gets even worse when you have hybrids and eventual straight electrics running in anything like serious numbers. We have to divorce road revenue from fuel consumption, perhaps with tolls, perhaps with GPS systems like the ones being eperimented with (but those raise privacy concerns), or perhaps a fixed yearly car tax, perhaps paid monthly if the amount is as much as I think it would come to. Most likely we will need a combination of some sort.

Problem is, no one wants to hear any of what I’ve just said, particularly the politicians, who are so fearful of losing their jobs that they make me look like Audie Murphy. No one wants to face the truth, even though the “truth will set you free,” to quote a wonderful old book.

The SMART project here in Sonoma County is a perfect example of a suburban area adopting rail transit. Obviously there are many more examples of urban models, but it’s nice to hear about what all types of communities are doing to combat traffic, air pollution, and our dependence on foreign oil.

Nice article and great comments.

I love things like this! This is what I would call a “dual-service” transportation option–handles both tourists and commuters. I’ll also admit to being a nostalgia hound, so I like old stuff, or at least old-looking stuff.

There are a surprising number of examples of such operations. They include the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge railroad in Colorado, which hauls tourists behind steam, but also takes fishermen into places in the Rio de Las Animas gorge that can’t be reached any other way, trolley cars in New Orleans, La., Kenosha, Wi., San Francisco, Ca. (F Line), cable cars (San Francisco again), freight service on the Strasburg Rail Road (steam heritage road in Pennsylvania, standard gauge), and undoubtedly others.

I’ll also mention that at one time, passenger trains and trolleys were also big in the package freight business, as were some bus lines.

A lot of what we need to do to live in a post-oil world will be to bring back what we foolishly threw away.

“While I have no intention of reframing The Transport Politic entirely towards addressing the transportation dilemmas faced by the inhabitants of suburban and rural communities, I pledge to make more of an effort to incorporate them seriously in my thinking and writing on the issues discussed here.”
Yonah, your effort could start with reading “Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age” by Paul Mees

Single most important transport expansion in small towns and middle-sized towns?

Sidewalks. No sidewalk, everyone use car.

As has been mentioned above, providing an infrastructure for private vehicle commutes has a cost beyond that of the fuel. All those parking spaces (at least two for every automobile in use) take up, well, space, and road maintenance does not come cheap either.

It costs a considerable amount to own and maintain a personal auto, and a transit/transport infrastructure that could enable people to go without would free up that capital for other (hopefully more productive/useful) things.

If we (as a society) want to make it easier for folks to get by without a car (or as many cars), then some “re-imagining” of the existing suburbs (and exurbs) that were planned around personal auto ownership will be needed. That would certainly involve expansion of transit options, but other changes are beyond the scope of this site.

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