6. Promote, plan, and construct affordable, environmentally-sensitive public transportation
I commuted an average of 100 miles per day for 24 years from a semi-rural community to the Portland, OR area. It wasn’t entirely a waste of my time, because I could listen to music and news on the radio, plan for the day ahead, or consider the lessons of the day behind. It was, however, a waste of fuel, a residue of combustion byproducts, plus an opportunity to be killed or maimed in a traffic accident (came close in 1986).
For the last 3 years we have had bus service from my town into a satellite hub within eyesight of Portland. It is a highly subsidized system (which is in itself a can of worms); but, as a result, the service is used at a fairly high level of capacity. Now I can listen or plan or consider – or read or discuss. That’s worth something right there. More importantly, a number of disadvantaged people have access to the advantages of an urban area, and a number of cars are not running down the highway.
I have travelled in Japan twice. The trains and subways transport more than two million people every weekday into and out of the 23 downtown Tokyo “wards”. And it is easy, convenient, reasonably-priced, clean, safe, quiet – there is no downside of which I am aware. (They are crowded, but the station guards don’t pack you into a carful of compressed humanity with batons nowadays.)
The Shinkansen (bullet trains) are my favorite mode of travel in the world. Again – you name the adjective that describes what you want in a transportation system, and the Shinkansen meets the description. The train systems there have their own “roads”, which are physically separated from the automobile/truck roads. There are not the scenes of carnage that we see here from car-meets-train events. Access is not easy for pedestrians, and so there are few person-meets-train events. All of the tracks that I have seen are dual-tracks. If you’re headed one way, you won’t have a meet-the-train-going-the-other-way event. It’s a helluva way to run a railroad, to coin an old rejoinder in an opposite sense.
I chose to high-light the Japanese system, both because I have some personal experience, and because it can be a model for us. A mere thirty-five years ago, Japan was focussed on economic growth with little thought of environmental effects. They started to factor in these effects about the same time that the environmental movement in this country gained popular support. However, the emphases were very different. In particular Japan paid more attention to public transportation, while the U.S. ignored the subject. One result is that a country with about 43% of the population of the U.S.A.; with the world’s second largest economy; and with a strong industrial base has relatively clean air, relatively clean water, a relatively healthy population – and traffic-related deaths about 20% of ours. (Of course, there are other factors for the air and water quality, including sewage treatment, industrial pollution abatement, conservation, and cultural factors; but the fact is that a highly mobile population enjoys significantly less ill effects from their transportation system than we do.) Traffic deaths alone should be considered a political scandal in this country. Eastern european countries and South Korea are about the only other countries in our league on a deaths-per-capita rate basis.
On the positive side for us, a large number of freight containers are loaded onto carrier cars for train transport, reducing the number of long-haul tractor-trailers on our main highways. But, as you can tell by driving on any interstate highway, there is much more potential business available for this approach. In the typical accounting Catch-22, though, freight transport via rail is often infeasible because of delays; so the business demand does not justify the investment needed to reduce delays. Dual tracks on isolated railbeds; railbed upgrades; an increase of decentralized container-loading facilities; sufficient carrier cars to service the potential market are all necessary – and relatively easy to achieve via government investment. The design and manufacture of locomotives and railcars to achieve high-speed transport – that will be a high-dollar investment.
The main point is that long-haul public and freight transportation is already designed and modelled – albeit in other countries. Even here, though, the rights-of-way are established; the technology is known; the product is out there. As is often cited in these position papers, it is more of a question of political will.
Local public transportation is not quite as easily visualized. Of course, bicycles are the best option for those who are capable and for days that are suitable. Communities like Portland have made bike lanes plentiful. Still – given the number of bike riders who end up in the hospital or in the morgue, the infrastructure is not adequate.
Light-rail – primarily for rush-hour commutes – is a good start, where park-and-ride is adequate. But there is a basic set of questions that need to be addressed for both light-rail and bus systems. Many local bus systems are laid out on a grid, so that you can get virtually anyplace with one or two transfers. In Portland, OR, however, both the bus system and the light-rail system is laid out like spokes of a wheel. If you’re not going downtown, you still have to go downtown to get on the bus that will take you to where you really want to go. It is the case that a large portion of commutes are from home to downtown business, but the “rush-hours” are very focussed in the morning and evening. During the rest of the day, such light-rail systems – and similar hub-type bus systems – are barely used, because they are inconvenient. So – again – we have a waste of fuel, an unwarranted volume of exhaust gases, plus inefficient allocation of labor and unnecessary wear of transport vehicles and roads.
OK – I’m not trying to design an improved public transportation system for Portland, OR in this paper. I am high-lighting the fact that – in the short run – planning will be the key problem with respect to local public transportation. In fact, this type of planning should be, and usually is, a local responsibility. The role of the federal government is to fund the planning process for the local governments; then help them find the funding for construction. This is actually the process now. The problem is the priority. This campaign finds public transportation to be a very high priority.