Saturday, April 2, 2011

Urban and Regional Public Mass Transit vs. High-Speed Rail

A frank discussion by Kirsten Moore, below, about the class issues regarding public mass transit, buses and rail. Buses are for working stiffs and lower income people.  Rail, as we can see for ourselves, are for the more prosperous classes.  

The very wealthy don't take public transit.  They drive or are driven.  For longer distances they fly commercial, and for the very very wealthy, on private or chartered Gulfstreams. And, high-speed rail will target this high-end segment of the commuting population since it will offer the most costly rail transit tickets for that exclusive, luxury ride.

This is not Europe, not Japan, not South Korea or Taiwan.  It's not China either.  This is the United States.  The overall amount of inter-city passenger train traffic is in decline and will continue to be in decline.  (Yes, I see Caltrain's monthly ridership numbers increase.)  However, in the Nation, there is a decline and we know all the reasons why that shouldn't be so; that we should give up our automobiles, stop flying and take a fast train.  Wishing won't make it so.

Ridership has been rising on a select number of urban and regional rail carriers including some parts of Amtrak; at least until this recent Recession.  And now, the direction is service cut-backs, reductions in funding, increasing fares, and postponing capital development upgrades.  And, for urban and regional transit, outside of Manhattan perhaps, the percent of the travelling, commuting sector using public transit remains a tiny single-digit fraction of the entire moving population.

There are a number of forces in operation that will have a major impact on passenger transit that makes any prediction reliability very doubtful.  Oil prices, wildly fluctuating, are now at over $105 per barrel. Unemployment figures vacillate weekly. The Middle-East upheaval and Japan's disaster all impinge on the global and American economy profoundly. Recklessly plowing ahead with vast HSR project expenditures is anomalous and perverse behavior.

All of which is to say, that if the high-speed rail advocates took their heads out of the sand and looked around at public transportation in the US, especially inter-city travel, they would have to acknowledge that there are no demand pressures.  It's not needed. And given the stunningly high costs of HSR, what the rail advocates are left with is, "We want it because we want it." "Build it and they will come."  That's for movies, not reality.

Having said all that, I still believe that our urban and regional commuter transit services should be "invested" in, upgraded, made more convenient, and enable all classes to afford this public utility service. It is within the major population centers in the US that the congestion problems exist and that fuel consumption could easily be reduced if the transit capacity were as, or more, cost/effective and convenient than driving. Outside of New York City, the first-and-last-mile problem has yet to be solved.

And, by the way, buses are far more capable of flexible scheduling and rerouting than rail.  For urban environments, especially if in flux, that's a desirable attribute.  Rail locks in the transit service for many generations.  Given the economic and cultural upheavals in the current national and state environments, shifting populations, employment uncertainties, and other large social forces, locking down a super-expensive train track to run between two cities doesn't sound like very rational thinking.

Bus Versus Train: A Dying Debate
The <>Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s cutbacks on its bus line, eliminating about 12% bus service, illuminate the problems of mass transit in LA, specifically the relative inefficiency of trains in the city. This 12% is a further reduction after the 4% cutbacks six months ago, sparking anger from the Bus Riders Union. Metro Chief Executive Art Leahy says that his decision to decrease spending is a result of the low ridership, yet city trains, which are also underperforming, remain relatively untouched.

Leahy argues that buses are easier to eliminate, re-route, and reschedule than rail lines are. However, he also says that the cutting back on lesser-used bus lines will free up the resources to enhance the ones in higher demand. Many bus riders feel that they are getting a raw deal seeing as bus lines, which transport 80% of the MTA’s passengers, only get 35% of the operating budget to begin with. This being true, how much is the other 65% really helping the rail lines then?

The Bus Riders Union thinks that the MTA’s preference for trains over buses is an unfair reflection of class interests. Because rich people do not take the bus, there is no incentive to keep it running. 

As is becoming increasingly clear, especially with the current high-speed rail discussions, rich people don’t want to ride the train anymore either. This local debate, therefore, is not an argument of whether to cutback on buses or trains; it is an argument about how to deal with the general decline in mass transit.