A headline from yesterday’s Washington Post: Arlington County streetcar project will cost $358 million, much more than original estimate.
Is anybody surprised? London built the first urban transit system in the middle of the industrial revolution, and today every major city in the world has one of its own, as well as countless minor cities that I assume want the cache of being a major metropolis without any of the economic clout or outrageous property values. (Minneapolis, Portland, I’m looking at you). Most new projects are of the less-expensive and greener light-rail, as opposed to heavy-rail, variety, though it’s still worth asking: is a mode of transportation designed for the industrial world still ideal for the modern economy?
I’m no transit policy wonk, but I have to scratch my head every time another DC transit project is announced. The DC metro-area has a handful of rail & streetcar transit projects under construction or in the works. There’s the Silver Line, an extension of DC’s Metro system through the posh suburbs of Northern Virginia toward Dulles Airport. Over-budget and indefinitely delayed, the latest news is that the new line will cause to longer wait times throughout the system.
The DC Streetcar, also behind schedule, is effectively a subsidy for real estate developers and speculators, and its boosters are in disagreement about whether rider fares should partially cover its operating budget or barely make a dent in it.
Maryland’s planned 16-mile light rail Purple Line, which would connect the outer edges of the Metro system throughout suburban Maryland, is having a bit of a problem with NIMBYism, and may well spark another eminent domain fight in the coming years.
Now, I don’t hate all transit systems. Congestion in the DC metro area is such that, despite its many problems, I’d rather fork over an extra $X in rent to live in the city and take the Metro than make the 2-hour/20-mile commute to and from the cheaper ‘burbs. Every Amtrak train I’ve taken in the northeast corridor (Boston-New York-Washington) has been filled to capacity, likely with riders who, like me, don’t need a car to reach their final destination. But just because urban transit and passenger rail makes sense in the most densely populated region of the country doesn’t mean it makes sense for the Midwest, though transportation enthusiasts keep trying anyway.
A common argument in favor of urban transit is that it’s environmentally friendly: If people who normally drive solo instead hop on a train together, it’ll mean less pollution. In fact, transit is not always greener than driving. Moreover, most people in the country still regularly travel by car. While large transit systems only get periodic upgrades (if commuters are that lucky), cars are growing more and more green every year. As drivers (and that’s the vast majority of commuters) replace their cars with newer, more fuel-efficient models, driving may become greener than rapid transit.
The other big rallying cry of transit planners is that a transit system eases congestion. It generally doesn’t. (Even Matt Yglesias says so). Not everybody drives one-person-to-a-car, and even if you can offload the contents of 80 cars onto a single bus, evidence suggests that you’re probably going to end up with 80 new, different drivers the next day. Moreover, if that streetcar is standing-room-only and requires you transfer to another bus or train, plus 15 minutes of walking to and from the station, many riders will decide that they might as well just drive. Traffic congestion is a matter of pricing, not capacity.
If you live in the DC area you know the reality that is getting around on weekends via Metro: Track work, closed stations, and 15-20 minute waits between trains. Escalator failures are a regular occurrence. Elevators are seemingly perpetually out of order, putting a huge burden on the city’s disabled commuters. These burdens fall hardest on the city’s poorest residents who don’t follow typical M-F 8-5 schedules or don’t have cars or disposable income to spend on services like Lyft or Uber. A decade of ongoing development—transit-oriented development—along the city’s Green line have sent rents in Navy Yard, Shaw, Columbia Heights, and Petworth sky-high.
The sad reality is that too many of us in the DC area – from rich to poor, developers and residents alike – have arranged our lives around a transit system that falls far, far short of the lofty goals of urban planners. Metro already faces capacity constraints during rush hour at its busiest transfer stations, and metro buses are only as fast as the surrounding street traffic. Why do we, as a city, put up with this madness?
We may not have a reasonable transportation alternative until jet packs and flying cars come along, but in the age of the Internet—particularly mobile Internet—is there a reason we’re all racing to be at the same location around the same time every morning? What may have made sense for factory line workers doesn’t necessarily jive with today’s always-plugged-in 21st-century economy. We may be stuck with the expensive systems that have already been built, but given that virtual conferencing and telework is a certainty in the not-too-distant future, we ought to turn a skeptical eye towards cities that insist they must spend millions/billions in tax dollars for a 20th century transportation system.