Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Sacred Cow

While I was in the Lone Star State, I heard a lot about Austin's new commuter railway. As a budding transportation nerd, my ears pricked up and I listened to what people said, and took a look at a station. Basically, Austin's Capital Metro is using existing freight rail lines to add a commuter service that will connect downtown Austin to its northern suburbs and Leander, TX. The line was supposed to be in operation two years ago, but it's failed four inspections by the federal agency responsible for policing rail safety. And the city recently dumped its rail contracter, Veolia Transportation, after failing for the fourth time. It's now planning a March opening.

*Sound of brakes screeching*

Ok. So. I was going to write about how the Austin commuter rail, despite numerous positive press releases and public statements, appears to have been something of a debacle. I would have discussed why it was sad that incompetence had thwarted the development of a rail system in a city that really promotes active transportation. I might even have asked a few questions about how this project compares to light rail, such as a trolley system, or bus rapid transit, and how these options would work for walkers and cyclists.

But then I spoke to my husband, a transportation planner, who flinched a little. Further discussion with him led me to the conclusion that any attempt to impartially explore rail and bus development would be bad. If I attempted an amateur take on these issues, I would probably have inadvertently stabbed any number of sacred cows in the neck and started up a bus vs. rail flame war. And would then have had to join the Witness Protection Program to avoid being stalked by angry bloggers. Light rail, buses and conventional rail have a lot of ardent advocates.

That right there, is the problem we're having in active and alternative transportation, people. I'd like to use my status as the outsider to take an outsider's look at rail transit in the U.S., but there are lots of intelligent people slamming each other over this. And I could expect a whole lot of angry diatribes in my inbox if I dared to comment. Perhaps it's time to ease up on criticism from within the ranks: bus advocates vs. the street car crowd, effective cyclists vs. the Copenhagenize syndicate, almost everyone else versus cyclists. There's plenty coming from outside, as this attack on the director of America 2050 will show.

Let's discuss transportation issues, let's pool ideas. But let's also have an open mind about alternatives. Let's remember that the goal is to make it possible, even desirable, for people to choose something other than their car to go about the business of living.

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