Friday, January 13, 2006

Light Rail, Waste, and What's Important

As some readers may know, I remain pretty ambivalent towards the notion that mass transit can solve major problems in cities. As a libertarian, I tend to be skeptical about any kind of government spending, especially on things that are not essential to protection of property and the promotion of individual liberty. Yet as a lover of buildings, urban landscapes, and dramatic man-made skylines, I find the libertarian approach to cities lacking in inspiration to create functional and attractive systems of urban development. Because of my desire to see major capital investment in cities that will structure them into a more cohesive whole, I tend to be sympathetic to the imposition of new mass transit systems even as they continue to be expensive boondogles that will never pay for themselves and usually end up as budgetary black holes.

Randal O'Toole from the Cato Institute explores particularly the wasteful aspects of mass transit projects in cities (read the PDF here). He argues that the way that transportation planning is organized from the federal down to the state level discourages more economical transportation solutions, such as buses, in favor more expensive and capital intensive urban rail systems. He argues convincingly that congestion problems are more likely to be solved by flexible scheduling of buses, increasing the number of bus routes as well as synchronizing stop lights. The current status quo on transit planning discourages creative private solutions of transport and favors a bureaucratic process that relies on faulty information to justify complicated schemes with little regard to actual improvements in congestion.

From my own experience with urban rail transit as well as intensive bus use, I agree very much with O'Toole's conclusions. Rarely have government agencies ever been prudent in spending, and the incentive innovate is antithetical to the very nature of bureaucracies. After all, a light rail system is hardly a new idea, but rather the revival of the great private streetcar systems that dotted the country during the 19th century. But one thing we can learn from that earlier period was the motive for which these streetcar lines were created: to guide the growth of suburban development and ensure its formal connection to the central city. I'm not sure that inserting a rail system in a suburb or before the establishment of a new town is what's called for in the car-dependent 21st century. Nevertheless, I do favor a more coherent urban pattern that harmonizes with transportation infrastructure that would create lively, heterogeneous urban spaces that establish a sense of place and fulfills functional needs of the surrounding community at a human scale. This must not prescribe a preferred style nor must it affect every other zone in a city. The car must be an essential part of the equation, while rail transit should only be considered if it makes economic sense (but since they ever rarely do, my criteria would prevent the establishment of almost any new train line, so in truth it's more about how much money a community is willing to lose in exchange for an elegant transit line).

These are only my opinions, based on my own limited knowledge and observations. I welcome you readers to share your thoughts on mass transit and how we can streamline the efficiency of moving about in the city.

Note: Here's a thoughtful analysis about transit oriented development from one of my readers.

Note 2: Ed Driscoll links to more articles and blogs criticizing light-rail from the libertarian point of view. Reason Online's comment thread provides interesting insights worth reading.

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