When I traveled to Europe this summer, I felt in love with multimodal and sustainable transportation. Bikes, mopeds, trams, trolleys, trains are just a few to name. When we’re looking today about how to judge a community’s vitality, one cannot help but look at how the transportation system property serves all members of the community.
Not only does effective public transport allow citizens to get to work on time, but in 2009, public transportation managed to create double the number of jobs that highway investments did. This is an impressive number. If communities are benefitting both from the mobility that public transportation provides and from its job creation externalities, then investment in public transportation should be a high priority for policy makers to build better communities.
It seems the American public is starting to agree. More Americans are now carpooling to work and using public transit (where it exists) for 34% and 29% of the time, respectively. Even with this good “movement” in the numbers, we have to think very carefully about how we strategically invest in public transportation and new infrastructure. Investing in trendy transportation initiatives prematurely could end up isolating lower income citizens, with high admission fees and a lack of investments in established systems like buses.
For example, high speed rail projects are huge investments. When we aren’t careful about how we plan for the route connections, the capabilities of the high speed rail (HSR) system aren’t taken to full advantage. Look at ACELA, the Northeast’s pride HSR project. It has reached 150 mph, but rarely ever is able to reach such speeds because of repetitive stops. I think it’s more important to think about how many people Acela can serve than how fast it can go on a single trip. Instead of trying to race with Asia or Europe to see who has the fastest HSR train, let’s look better at how effectively the system serves the demographics we are looking to serve. Then can you say that the project was a strong investment.
Another example is the Tampa-to-Orlando Project, which seems comical that is even exists. The two cities as Megan McArdle, author of the article, points out are only 84 miles apart! Instead of using Federal grant money to make a high speed bullet train route, work with Amtrak to make more efficient and reliable commuter trains with more frequent travel times. This uses the same infrastructure and rail lines, without the enormous construction investments that a superfluous HSR system would need. Looking further, if you want to create a more sustainable rail system, look in clean energy powered trains to start off. If that works, policy makers can begin to allocate funds to localities that already have existing, and efficient, systems of passenger rail as experiments for HSR investment.
I am a fan of high speed rail. However before we fully take the leap into investment in projects that may be an overinvestment or an underuse, we need to work with what we have first. Expanding passenger rail services, improving bus route linkages to train stations, and rethinking clean energy for trains are just a few examples of positive changes we can make now with lower levels of investment. One has to only look at the success of the bus system in Curitiba, Brazil, to know that we have work to do here. By doing so, we can allow help all citizens, especially those in the lower income bracket, to travel and get to work. Only once our communities have effective “regular” speed transportation, can we think about bigger and faster trains.
Guest Contributor: Kelly Clifton