Needed: Mass Transit Experimentation

18Jun08

Everybody’s worried about gas prices, about the cost of commuting and relying on cars.  People are going to be talking about improved mass transit.

Which we need — desperately.  We have needed it for decades, since the 1970s and before.  I remember writing a letter, as a schoolboy, to a state governmental transportation authority in Indiana in the 1960s.  I said that what we needed was an individualized rail-based system of transportation.  I suggested that rails could lead into people’s garages, just as driveways do.  It seemed to me that it would be cheaper and easier to run one or two rails than to cover the nation with hardened concrete platforms, wide as a barn and endless thousands of miles long.

The rail guy was kind enough to respond in all seriousness to my childish letter.  He said that a rail system limits mobility.  I remember thinking — Yeah, and a highway system doesn’t?  I still wonder what he was thinking.  Those were not the days of four-wheel drive vehicles and off-roading.

At the time, my concept was that each family could have a pod-like car that would run on rails, and when a bunch of them wanted to drive across the country on vacation, they could connect their cars together into individualized passenger trains and run them on express rails.  Later, when computers became popular, it occurred to me that computers could do that too.

I guess I still don’t get it.  Why perpetuate a system that kills so many thousands of people each year, when you could do something else instead — something that would move everyone along at maximum feasible speed, without slowdowns for accidents, without these tremendous road construction projects, without the unbelievable tab for maintenance that we now don’t know how we will afford?

Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if rail transportation will experience a comeback.  My suggestion now is that it do so incrementally, in tandem with developments in preferences.  An alienated nation created suburbs in which people wouldn’t have to know their neighbors and wouldn’t have (or be able) to walk to the market.  That may not be the shape of the next generation’s America.

What’s needed is some relatively small, rapidly planned, highly publicized efforts that combine incremental mass transit development with higher-density residential areas.  Run an existing subway or light rail line one stop further, as quickly as possible, to a neighborhood that is being developed as an old-fashioned smallish town (of, say, 5,000 to 15,000 people), complete with its own city center including courthouse, grocery, and so forth, but perhaps with higher population density within walking distance of the train station.

Knowledge from that sort of project could advise as to whether the country is going to be intensively urbanizing or is, instead, in the market for a revival of the old Interurban lines, rolling along, trolley-like, from one freestanding small town to the next.

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