Tuesday, October 11, 2005

What's It Called? Monorail!-Thoughts on Public Transit

I was in San Francisco on vacation a few weeks ago, and using its much-vaunted transportation system got me to thinking about what I like and dislike about public transit. Although I currently live in a car-only suburb near car-obsessed Dallas, I manage to take public transportation for my daily commute, namely light rail. Before then, I lived in Chicago taking the “El” everyday, and before that I rode the city bus in Denver, and while a grad student in Austin, I depended on a univ ersity-sponsored shuttle bus. I’ve spent a good chunk of my time in public transportation. So far it has rarely been much of a pleasure using them. As beautiful the Golden Gate city was, its scenery failed to de-emphasize the drawbacks in taking public transit, whether by bus or cable car. Especially when toting my new-born son with all of his necessary gear (diaper bag, stroller, etc.) getting around the city was a chore, and I subsequently yearned for the simplicity of my car. Granted, automobile traffic in San Francisco seemed to be in grid-lock most of the time, but somehow I found the public transit option less than fulfilling.

After all these years, I’m still uncomfortable riding in a shared space like a bus or train car. I’m not quite like Sartre and think “l’enfer, c’est les autres” ("hell is other people") but I’m sure most could do without the unpleasant body odor, the loud talking or buzzing headphones, the standing and hanging on to bar restraints, and last but not least, waiting in searing heat or bitter cold. Your freedom of movement around the city is limited to where the bus/train stops, and where and how one does their errands depends on the location of these stops. I’m reduced to buying as many bags as my hands could hold for periods up to a half-hour. Then I think about what I could have accomplished with my car, with its spacious trunk in the back, and the ability to park on any street and frequent businesses far from the bus/train stop. I’m reminded of how driving through a city forms a mental picture of the urban structure, the relationship of buildings, landmarks and major traffic arteries in the landscape.

When I first moved to Chicago, I brought my car, knowing that parking was going to be difficult. I ended up rarely using it since I lived close to a major train route, but in the instances which I did drive I realized how my car allowed me to discover parts of the city I would have never known about otherwise, experiences views of the city unavailable to train or bus passengers. My car-less friends who needed a ride were usually grateful for being driven directly in front of their homes as opposed to walking several blocks from the station late at night in the freezing cold. They were also struck by the discoveries of nearby neighborhoods and how the city would unfold itself in a car ride. Being solely dependent on public transit for a while, I realized a sense of disconnect with the city’s surrounding areas to where suburban communities did not really exist, and the world beyond the last stop was indefinite and ultimately foreign. My world had become linear, a thread of stops with nodes for all my necessities, going back and forth along a single contorted axis. Cities are not linear but radial, or at least a grid that blankets the landscape in countless directions. Walking can only immerse you with distinct fragments of a city, but the personal automobile compresses time and space to such a degree so as to make the city as a perceivable entity.

The advantages of personal car driving listed above does not argue for the elimination of public transit, but instead they explain why cars the dominant transportation of choice, and why most people will never want to be forced out their cars. Beyond the belief that people prefer to be isolated from strangers and seek the security of some form of private confine, the appeal of controlling one’s personal environment and navigating at whim ensures that the automobile will be here to stay well into the future. Artificial intelligence my replace the driver and hydrogen may replace gas, and even the wheels may disappear, but a personal people-mover will continue to conform the human nature’s natural predilection for unlimited freedom of movement.

That being said, I do think that public transit has its place in cities. One cannot plan for sizeable areas of urban density without provisions for mass transit, as access to such spaces is impractical with cars. Stacked garages can be made to look attractive, but the amount of space necessary and the tremendous expense in building them in zones of high property values favor the insertion of transit stops with regular service to and from them. The numerous street intersections of downtown areas slow the movement of vehicles to the point where walking would be just as fast, the distances for a pedestrian being small enough that makes starting up the car, driving, and searching for parking again seem absurd. Commuter lines complement well overtasked highways and abundant bus routes accommodate those who can’t drive for various reasons (too old, too young, too poor, too disabled, etc.).

There are nevertheless limits to the efficiency of a transit system. Such limits are tied closely to the density of the area the transit line serves. Placing a lightrail station in the middle of widely-spaced shopping cener or in the middle of a neighborhood zoned with single-family housing is not an efficient nor effective move towards improving the functioning of a transit line. Creating a route that stops exclusively at intersections with little pedestrian traffic to speak of leads to near-empty buses or trains, a waste in fuel and needless traffic. High-density development requires an effective way of moving large amounts of people quickly. Low-density development is intended to promote spatial privacy, lower populations, and and very modest amounts of foot traffic, while promoting private transportation in the form of cars. Where numerous cars overwhelm tight spaces with insufficient parking, mobile high-density 'containers' will move the masses, further reinforcing the idea that dense spaces are not about privacy as they are about a shared public experience. Cities consist of a range of different densities, from sleepy residential neighborhoods to busy shopping districts. Each of these environments involve a tradeoff between privacy and the public, or between calm and noise. Modes of transport should harmonize with these environments rather than inhibit them. Few people truly enjoy walking on tight sidewalks while cars are log-jammed on the street spewing out exhaust just a few feet away. Likewise a transit line would not look good dropping off people in the middle of a vast parking lot or highway, where passengers are expected to trek a quarter mile to a safe and shaded place.

It is with these ideas in mind that I read a piece by James Thayer in the Weekly Standard regarding the failure of the monorail initiative in Seattle recently. To summarize, voters in that city had approved in a referendum to develop the first in a series of monorail lines that would cross the city at an estimated price tag of 1.6 billion. After the vote, it was discovered that this price was the result of a financial sleight of hand by the project's boosters in city government and pro-monorail interest groups. Buyer's remorse set in when it was realized that the initial attractive designs for the monorail would not hold after structural issues were worked out, requiring fat column supports that would blight existing streetscapes. Add to that ensuing beautification costs and agency expenses and the price tag inflated to 2.1 billion. The project was going to be financed by stiff car taxes, penalizing car owners in the city and giving more reasons for city residents to move to the suburbs in which to register their cars. Most of the project's boosters and some on the monorail's own governmental commission body have reversed their positions against the project.

It is a given that the budgets of major transportation projects will be larger than first estimated and will account for copious amounts of mismanagement and waste. What was for me the most revealing fact about monorail was its inefficient route that neglected basic rules of serving urban density. Thayer writes:

It mattered little to Seattleites that the proposed 14-mile Green Line essentially went nowhere. At the south end was West Seattle, as sleepy a place as exists in the city. At the north end was Ballard, another quiet neighborhood. The line didn't go near the area's hot spots: the airport, the Microsoft campus, the University of Washington,
the Boeing plants, the bustling Eastside. Nor did it closely parallel the perpetually clogged north-south freeway, Interstate 5.

Which means, then, that ridership will remain low and the line will continue to lose money for the city indefinitely. Except for a few historically dense cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston and San Francisco, among others, most public transportation systems run on deficits. Part of this can be explained by bureaucratic incompetence, but much of it can be blamed on lower than expected ridership. If certain routes are designed like the proposted monorail in Seattle, there's no question as to why too few people use public transit. It is often argued by light-rail or monorail boosters that the placement of station will raise the location's property value and will act as a catalyst for denser urban development around it. The taxes raised from areas around the station will more than offset the losses from the operation of the line. It's a good pitch, and my hometown of Dallas has seen a real-estate successes that arose from the insertion of a light rail station. Still those places already had a reasonably high density prior to development, while other stops along the line are still surrounded by vacant lots. Development might come in enventually in those areas, but I'm usually weary of proposals based on pure speculation, especially when it involves my tax money.

In conclusion, it is obvious to most that public transportation is not the cure-all to most of the contemporary city's problems with regard to traffic or even the environment (running an empty bus throughout most of day is not my idea of conserving resources). A transit line will more likely fail to fulfill its boosters' promises and will probably end up operating in the red indefinitely. Cars are the preferred mode of transportation over every alternative, and urban design will have to accomodate to this fact rather than ignore it. Nevertheless, public transportation has an important place, but rather than being viewed as a necessity, I appreciate it as an amenity. Much like a hotel without a pool, or a restaurant without banquet rooms, it's nice to have and it's a potential for greater things but it does not prevent the business from functioning well.

For an enjoyable discussion on light rail and monorail by a Seattle resident, click on the image above.

UPDATE 7/14/2010: Five years on and two additional kids later, I've given up on taking the light-rail to work downtown. By driving, even on a busy interstate highway, I cut my commute by 15 minutes each way. With the increase in familial duties and mounting demands from work and community projects, the ability to be flexible to get wherever, whenever, becomes paramount. Commuting on the train simply eats up too much time.

Over the years I've become a bit more disenchanted with public transit, and I've learned to completely disregard the boosters of transit-oriented development. With the recent real-estate bubble having given many TOD projects a chance to get built around the DFW region , I've noticed the consistency to which they tend to underperform or fail spectacularly.

Granted, it is necessary for a city of a certain size to facilitate transportation for those who aren't able to drive for whatever reason. I just wish there was a way of doing this without fostering a corrupt and fiscally reckless transit agency that comes attached. As I write this, Dallas continues to forge ahead in expanding new light-rail lines. I wish the whole endeavor well, but don't be surprised when the transit agency begs for more money and cuts bus services.

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