Thursday, June 30, 2011

Instead Of California High-Speed Rail, Why Not Networked Regional Transit, Which We Need?

You have been reading (assuming you follow this blog) about the far greater importance of solving the urban and regional transit problems that beset our major populations centers in California than running an over-priced luxury train between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Both of these cities anchor high-density, but also highly distributed populations, where they live and where they work throughout the Bay Area and in the LA Basin.  

And that's where there should be major development of highly integrated, networked transit systems consisting of all available modalities, of which rail is merely one.

An organization titled has provided a White Paper by Michael Setty, called Beyond High Speed Rail: California Networked Transit.  It's 18 pages long with many graphs, maps and charts.

Here is an article about it from

Beyond High Speed Rail: California Networked Transit
Written by Administrator   
Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Transportation networks are like plants: there must be a balance between the "trunks" and "branches" for both to be healthy and thrive. Unfortunately, as currently conceived, California's High Speed Rail (HSR) proposal is all trunk and no branches. Current HSR design philosophy imposes an entirely new, separate, extremely costly infrastructure that is not capable of passenger train “interoperability” to/from existing rail lines. Due to this and other problems, California’s HSR faces serious trouble. 

To address this problem, has produced White Paper 2011-1, Beyond High Speed Rail: California Networked Transit. This White Paper proposes a radical change in design philosophy: "Networked Transit." 

“Networked Transit” should become a major focus of state government, greatly enhancing the effectiveness of the intercity rail and HSR programs. Networked Transit is a customer needs-driven approach rather than the current technology-centered agenda. The benefits of Networked Transit–where each and every transit mode is considered for its place in an overall network or system, not just its technological characteristics–is best illustrated by an example from Switzerland, where the transit network connects from minibuses serving the smallest Alpine village to the country’s largest train station in Zurich. 

Last Updated ( Thursday, 30 June 2011 )

I'm not sure I agree with all of Setty's premises and my impression is that he does support the high-speed rail concept for California, but only if it is integrated far more extensively into the larger urban and regional rail networks.  I gather what he's more about is that the concept of HSR in our state has been completely de-contextualized from existing rail systems, the rail authority's assertions to the contrary notwithstanding.  Obviously, Publictransit is an advocacy organization and would not oppose high-speed rail if it were "networked" as Setty describes.

He puts it this way; HSR is putting "the cart before the horse."  The currently planned HSR train, he projects, would carry less than 5% of all of California's intercity trips greater than 50 miles.  Setty asks that the state develop "networked transit" and uses Switzerland as a model for such a systemic approach to transit. In Switzerland, you can get from, figuratively speaking, Heidi's grandfather's farm to any other place you wish, by public transit.

My concern stems from the fact that we are not Switzerland.  The Swiss, and most Europeans for that matter, are quite comfortable taking public transit from point A to point B even if that entails many transfers, which Setty details.  

In the US, confronted with more than two or three transfers, even if well synchronized, becomes quite discouraging.  Those people who do this in the US need to; they have no alternative transit available to them.   I'm assuming that if the trip requires high-speed rail use, even with a single ticket, the costs will be considerable and that makes driving, with all it's shortcomings, more attractive. Let's just say that whatever transit network and system exists, if HSR is part of it, it will, by virtue of cost, select out a majority of the public. 

Setty's model is highly rational and doubtlessly very effective in the world where it now exists and which he wishes us to emulate here, Switzerland and other European countries as examples. However, what I'm thinking is that this model, including HSR, has no transferability to the US and it's culture.

I should also say that the concept of a highly distributed transit network is a concept espoused by Alan Hoffman, a transit development consultant from San Diego, and from whom I learned a great deal. 

The traffic problem in California does not exist equally distributed throughout the state; it exists primarily within the two population regions.  Hence, in those two major regions, a distributed convenient transit network which takes the first and last mile into account will seduce many commuting drivers out of their cars.  

Unfortunately, we are intent on building just the opposite, a luxury high-speed train for travellers from LA to SF, and who can afford either to fly or take this expensive train ride. Meanwhile, all the working commuter classes in the major metropolitan regions are left high and dry.  What sense does that make?

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