Friday, January 31, 2014

The dark side of light rail

I used to be a fan of light rail projects (and other rail-based mass transit) in large cities like Dallas, Washington DC, and many others, but now I'm not so much anymore. This is partly because it's been hijacked by a largely ludicrous bunch that, in many ways treats their beliefs about transit like a religion.

They're easy to find with Google searches: they are anti-freeway, tossing out fabricated or manipulated statistics to make rail seem cost-effective, and don't take kindly to being called out on. Light rail advocates coldly derided the late "Texans for True Mobility" group, primarily funded by Republicans as a lie, not realizing that they were the ones that were anti-mobility. These people are what I call "light rail fanatics", or LRFs, as I will use in this article.

To avoid pigeon-holing the "LRFs" as a hive mind who talk about the things below, these are common beliefs that run between people, not necessarily that all of the "LRFs" have. If you consider yourself a "light rail fanatic" but find that you disagree with one of the things below, it's okay: that part will not apply to you, but they do go for someone else. There is also a difference between a fan of light rail and a "light rail fanatic". Don't get them mixed up.

Well, for one, LRFs tend to romanticize things. They not only believe there was a calculated scheme to force people to ride buses, but also believe wrong things about streetcars themselves. A variety of TV shows and movies employ the belief that streetcars were far better than they actually were (putting this as fact in the LRFs minds), it also happen to be the same types of universes will people break into spontaneous song and dance. What's less emphasized is that streetcars were slow, broke down at regular rates, and occasionally jumped the tracks. The streetcar lines were already bankrupt by the time GM and its associated companies rolled in. This is held a cardinal belief in the light rail circles.

The second belief that LRFs hold as gospel is a theory known as "induced demand". This is where once a highway is built on previously undeveloped land, sprawl will occur and fill the highway up. But it's false, as sprawl was already there and had a pent-up demand to use it. This theory (and it is a theory) will fall apart under several conditions, proving it (at least mostly) wrong:

1) If induced demand was true, states and cities with declining populations could solve their problem by adding new freeways, thus adding sprawl, and people.

2) If induced demand was true, highways left unexpanded will eventually cause sprawl to stop and build up an ultra-high density core. This means cities with aging highways that haven't had significant updates since the 1960s will have better, higher cores than ones that haven't. But the areas with the tallest buildings have the biggest sprawl.

3) There are so many examples where that isn't the case. Since I run Brazos Buildings & Businesses, I can tell you that the Highway 6 bypass did not "create sprawl". The highway was built sometime in the 1970s (maybe late 1970s). A mall, a few subdivisions, and even a multi-story office building were added along the new bypass in the early 1980s, but it never sucked any life out of the main stretch (Business 6) of town, where all the businesses were located. New stores in the late 1980s and early 1990s, like Target, H-E-B Pantry, Wal-Mart, and Albertsons ALL went for the main road. It wasn't until the 1990s where some big draws started building (Sam's Club, a large movie theater, Lowe's, Wal-Mart Supercenter). It wasn't even until the mid-2000s where hotels, supermarkets, and freeway-fronted restaurants were finally added, wherein the highway finally started to appear like other highways in the case that sprawl surrounded it, but that's because the growth naturally caught up to it as it was expanding anyway (and not even in the DIRECTION of the freeway). These examples are often ignored by the LRFs. Even if it was an anomaly, LRFs and their ilk often cling to that kind of stuff anyway (like freeway removal).

It's rather laughable considering that LRFs are (supposedly) well-educated people, because this is the same type of ridiculously flawed thinking (highways create sprawl) that white supremacists use to "prove" why African-American people are inferior, or the old Middle Ages assumption that rotting meat will spontaneously produce flies.

Dollar for dollar, highways serve more people (and is compatible with their driveways), and even as nice as the light rail is in area that are serviced, the highways are still more popular, because they provide more freedom.

Light rail is designed to satiate a bare minimum of comfort: there's no eating, no smoking, etc.
I can't eat a hamburger in the light rail, or smoke on the light rail (I don't smoke, in case you're wondering), but I can in my car, but if they had eating and/or smoking, the light rail would be dirty, smelly, and generally unpleasant. Cars represent freedom, if you wanted to eat, smoke, or blast music from the stereo, you can. That is one of the reasons why highways are inherently more popular than public transit.

The third belief of LRFs is a lack of understanding for quality of life or different lifestyles. As LRFs are primarily urban dwelling liberals, "different lifestyles" refers to gay and lesbian people, not people who prefer to live in the suburbs, like driving cars, and enjoy having a yard. Coupled with this is a lack of understanding (or refusal to understand) that unless you're playing SimCity, people don't have a constant home-to-work schedule. People stop at restaurants and stores, and go to theaters, schools, businesses, and places all over town. There is no way that a mass transit system could ever effectively cover that as effectively (if at all) as private vehicles do.

The fourth belief of LRFs is that mass transit must be maxed out. Nearly all mass transit systems (especially rail) are public enterprises, which means that don't turn a profit, or at least, not much. Traffic jams on highways are obviously bad and seen by LRFs as a means to "justify" mass transit projects, and if a mass transit system routinely fills up with people packed shoulder to shoulder, it's a "success". If you're crammed next to people who think personal hygiene is entirely optional and you have a problem with that, LRFs will think you're just complaining. The thing is, low ridership tends to be better, have a higher quality of life. And it's not just a quality of life thing, it's also a math comprehension error (see below).

An example of this is the Dallas DART system. DART (the Dallas Area Rapid Transit) built up a fairly extensive light rail network since the 1990s, but it has one of the lowest riderships per mile. That's not a bad thing, and here's why: a bus on a college campus takes 40 people (I'm just making up numbers here for the purpose of example) on a mile journey across to the other side of the campus. A bus going from two major cities takes 40 people 200 miles. That's a fraction of the campus bus. Therefore, the longer bus would be a failure (in theory).

Instead, people LRFs and their sympathizers get wrong conceptions about why ridership is low, and blame the highways. If the highways and light rail system are equally well-built, and the light rail has empty seats, then the highways are superior (and that's why they're built). Light rail fans would rather see highway construction money go toward light rail, the equivalent of having a politician so lousy that he would attempt to undermine his opponent instead of actually trying to be the better candidate.

LRFs would say that it's the other way around, in which corrupt politicians redirect money away from light rail to fund highways. If a politician didn't do light rail for pragmatic reasons (see "Texans for True Mobility", above) and that freeways would serve more people, he is evil. The very reason that rail-based mass transit is found only in very large cities while freeways are as common as McDonald's restaurants is because you need a huge base of people to even have a worthy percentage in the amount of people who ride light rail. A Houston-based forum I go to had a few people deriding the politician that killed a monorail plan in the city while even Sydney's monorail had reached the end of its life after being only in operation since the late 1980s, and was both built and dismantled at an enormous cost.

Again, to be fair to LRFs, they aren't all like each other. Some are legitimately ideologues who think everyone should be forced to ride mass transit whether they like or not, and some are people who would like not be forced to drive every day in rush hour without buses.

I also want people to know that while I came down hard on the "light rail fanatics" and the things they hold as truth, there's nothing here that is inherently opposed to light rail. What I am opposed to is people who demand light rail at any cost and anyone who doesn't nod their head with their theories and wishes is backwards or the Antichrist.

If you'd like, please leave a comment below and we can discuss it further.

No comments:

Post a Comment