It seems like everywhere you look on the transportation blogosphere people are talking about transit, rail mostly. Commuter rail, high-speed rail, light rail, freight rail, electric trolleys, etc. These are the massive infrastructure investments that are going to help us succeed in revitalizing America and building a greener more sustainable future, paid for by Mr. Obama and his trillion dollar stimulus package.
You don't hear a whole lot about massive investment in biking and walking infrastructure, in streetscapes and bike paths and greenways and sidewalks. Most experts will be quick to agree that such plebeian modes of transportation can't possibly begin solve the transportation woes of the 21st century. Walking and biking?!, that's nice and all, but it won't really help our ailing transportation system. It won't ease congestion on our highways or connect people with jobs. For that we need things like high speed rail at a cost of at least three to six million dollars per mile. That's a low estimate, by the way, published by a rail advocacy group.
You see, all these experts are one hundred percent dead wrong. We should be making massive investments in infrastructure that supports and encourages walking and biking before we spend a single solitary dime on mass transit.
Before all you rail fans jump down my throat, bear with me for a moment, I'm on your side. For any transit station, or transit system, to truly succeed you need top-notch bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Planners, engineers, and policy makers tend to forget that you need to actually get to a transit stop in order to use the bus, train, or trolley that's going to pick you up. Typically, you need to walk or ride your bike to get there. You could have the best train service in the whole wide world and it wouldn't do you a bit of good if there wasn't a safe and comfortable way to get to it.
You could of course drive to the transit station, as so many Metro-North riders in this state do, though this creates problems of its own.
First, instead of having housing, shops, parks and offices within walking distance of the station, you get oceans of asphalt so you can park all the autos that bring in the commuters and their precious fares. This creates an ugly, inhospitable, environment for everything but cars, and on a more practical level, it forces cities and towns to devote much of their valuable, taxable land to parking. Not exactly a best use.
Second, even if you do decide to drive to the station, you can't bring your car with you on train. Hell, Metro-North won't even let you bring your bicycle on. Most of the train stations in Connecticut are in suburbs and are essentially platforms poking up out of parking lots. This means that unless your destination is New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, or New York, you can take the train in, but you're pretty much stuck at the station. Oh, and most of the job growth in this state is in the suburbs now, so yes they do matter, and so do their train stations.
Third, under this scenario, you're not really taking cars off the road, the oft-cited benefit of transit. You're just shifting automobile trips from highways to local streets, as drivers all pour into the train station parking lots. Sure the trips are shorter, but the increased idling and stopping and starting caused by traveling on congested town roads means that there isn't as much of a reduction in auto emissions as you might think.
To be sure, our highways are congested, dirty and inefficient. We need more rail links to enable faster and more reliable travel between towns and cities, to replace short flights, to get more trucks off the road. There are innumerable benefits to having an extensive and effective rail network.
In way, the experts are right, we need more rail, more buses even. A lot more. However, investing in transit without first creating a world-class bicycle and pedestrian network is an absolutely ridiculous proposition. It's splurging on the big things without nailing down the little ones, the low-hanging fruit. Let's make sure that our train stations are accessible by bicycle and on foot whenever and wherever possible before we start spending big bucks on new rail amenities. In other words, let's worry about getting people to the train station before we start wringing our hands about how fast the trains go and how new and shiny they could be if only we spent a couple billion dollars more.