L.A. Times Columnist: American trains and transit will always suck. – Well if US trains & transit suck, god help Canada’s trains & transit!


The following is from The Infrastructurist




Yesterday’s dispatch from LA Times business writer David Lazarus has a great lede: “It’s hard to appreciate how truly pitiful our public transportation system is until you spend some time with a system that works.” Many of us know that feeling.

Then he gushes about the consistently reliable, affordable and convenient transit systems in Japan. “I rode just about every form of public transit imaginable — bullet trains, express trains, commuter trains, subways, street cars, monorails and buses.” All fabulous, of course.

 Then there’s that age old question of replicating it here in this place we call America. Lazarus argues that even if you build great transit and high speed rail networks people won’t use them in sufficient numbers unless you also strongly penalize car travel. Carrot and stick. But how to discourage auto use? Like this:

  • Make driving more expensive with higher gas taxes and road fees
  • Make parking much pricier and less convenient all over the country
  • Redevelop our cities and suburbs to make them denser and more conducive to transit and rail travel

Pretty basic stuff, though Lazarus chooses to characterize this broader process as “making our cities less comfortable” and says he “simply can’t imagine political leaders at the local, state or federal level telling voters that they support a big increase in gas taxes, sky-high parking fees and high-density neighborhoods.”

That fact essentially seals the fate of transit and passenger rail, he argues.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument he’s right that politicians will never act to make driving meaningfully more expensive. Should we abandon hope for transit and passenger rail that doesn’t suck?

No. Potentially for two reasons, in fact.

The first is that real estate values and consumer preferences will do some of the heavy lifting for us. As Brookings scholar Christopher Leinberger has argued very compellingly, we face a long-term shortage of walkable dense housing and a massive overhang (22 million units by one calculation) of large lot exurban housing. When we talked to him, Leinberger put it this way: “Gen Xers and Millennials want a lifestyle closer to Friends than to Tony Soprano.”

The people that move into those Friends-style living arrangements are the people that cities like Charlotte, Phoenix, Denver, Cincinnati, etc. want moving there. They build the tax base and are additive to the local economy. We’re not big fans of gimmicky labels like the “creative class” or “knowledge workers,” but that’s essentially who these people are.

The fact is, of course, that there’s no way to lead the Friends lifestyle without walkable developments and a good transit system. So there will be no shortage of local leaders who want to emulate Portland, Oregon, or Tysons Corner, Virginia. Considerably fewer communities will want to actively emulate the living arrangements of, say, Riverside County (though there probably will be some because there are still plenty of Americans who want the Sopranos life). There will be–and already is–a slow shift of political power towards the interests of the Friends group, which has proven amenable to paying higher taxes for a good transit system and looks very skeptically upon $5 billion projects to widen exurban freeways. But n the real world, even where the popular will exists there will be a lot of obstacles to taxing drivers more heavily–witness the fact that Bloomberg couldn’t implement congestion pricing in one of the Western world’s densest cities.

A second reason might prove more abrupt and comprehensive. Oil prices go up and keep going up, in a manner as is now being predicted by International Energy Agency’s top economist. That is, markets do the dirty work for us of discouraging driving. A workable public transportation system will become indispensable in more and more places — and will probably involve a generous helping of cheap, improvisational solutions like van pools and ride sharing in addition to fancy new transit.

The move toward a world where we need more alternatives to single-person auto travel is going to happen regardless of  US politicians. It would be better if we tried to get ahead of that curve. Lazrus is probably right to be gloomy about that–but wrong to be gloomy about the long-term prospects of transit and rail


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One Response to “L.A. Times Columnist: American trains and transit will always suck. – Well if US trains & transit suck, god help Canada’s trains & transit!”

  1. Reality Check Says:

    Great piece, as far as it goes.

    But this article makes two big assumptions.

    1. It assumes that people who want a Friends lifestyle represent a large and powerful force. They don’t. The “knowledge class” is a tiny slice of overall society, who may be willing to pay taxes for trains while the rest of society is not so willing. Even more significant, the Friends demographic is fleeting. When Ross and Rachel and company get married and have kids they quickly discover the benefits and value of the good school districts, relative safety, convenient franchises and roomy homes of the suburbs — complete with automobile (often a 4-wheel drive tank).

    2. The article admits that people will use public transit only out of economic necessity — and it is truly scary that some people want to hurt the economy with higher gas taxes and other “sticks” designed to hurt automobiles and force people onto public transit. We know — or I’d like to think we know — that higher energy costs drain every single thing our economy does (including growing those organic crops and making those iPhones). Higher gas prices immediately ruin livelihoods for truck drivers, taxi drivers, delivery companies, school bus services and on and on. Then later the higher transport costs drive prices up for all goods and services, hurting almost every kind of business large and small.

    It people seriously want that to happen, don’t expect me to sit still for it.

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