Suburban rail: An idea whose time has come … again? Act 1

NewOrleansHUDRedStreetcarRiverfrontCanal[1]You may not think of it in this manner, but the modes that make up transportation are mobile devices. Okay, now that that’s been established, just how mobile are these devices anyway? Well, one way to put it is: they aren’t static. But, by no means is mobility fluid absolutely, the best it can be or even all it can be.

So, here’s the $64 million question: How can mobility be improved? There are lots of ways to do this, though in this multi-part essay I’ll be talking about just one – suburbia-served rail transit.

The ‘big-picture’ perspective

Leighton Walter Kille at the Journalist’s Resource, describes the land-based transportation paradigm in the United States as follows: “America’s ground-transportation system is the essence of complex.”

Kille then goes on to explain exactly what was meant by “the essence of complex” in this case. He writes: “According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), it includes approximately 4 million miles of state and local roads, 136,000 miles of federal highways, 604,000 bridges, and 141,000 miles of rail, 80% of which are for freight. In addition to the 250-million-plus private cars and trucks in the United States, more than 74,000 commercial buses operate on our highways, while 31,602 train cars and locomotives keep intercity, commuter and subway systems rolling.”

But, does “the essence of complex,” as spelled out in the preceding paragraph, even begin to describe just how out of kilter transportation in America is? Okay, maybe “out of kilter” is too harsh a term. Perhaps a better, more appropriate way to sum the situation up is: our system of transportation lacks balance not to mention it suffers from a serious lack of funding – and when I say “suffers” I mean literally that.

Meanwhile, in “Making the connection – Part 3: Public transit: At a loss without it,” I opined: “Understanding that the proliferation of suburbs along with corresponding exponential rises in population, vehicle traffic and vehicle miles traveled had led to a point of diminishing returns being reached, with concomitant traffic congestion which, wastes time, money and fuel and has led to a deterioration of urban air quality and a host of other ‘unintended consequences,’ alleviating or easing or outright eliminating congestion is paramount.”

Congestion is a very real and important idea here, but obviously it is not the only one. Others coming to mind are: access (or reach), availability, comfort, convenience, efficiency, reliability, safety, speed, and above all others perhaps, sustainability.

History bears repeating

In getting back to the “Making the connection – Part 3: Public transit: At a loss without it” post, I furthermore offered: “In the early days, that people embraced public transit the way they did what with its considerable reach and all is no surprise. Absent public mass transit, for most residents living in densely populated, big-city, inner-ring neighborhoods, the world beyond such was seldom frequented. With the introduction of transit, on the other hand, to those inner-city dwellers in particular, the world became a lot less big.”

In continuing I posited: “Over the years with many having flocked to suburbia, public transit use was no longer the rule but had become the exception. Motor vehicle travel dominates – plain and simple.”

So this being the case, is it high time to return to the suburbia-served-rail-public-transit model? It could very well be. And, on that note, this and more on the history of streetcar suburbs is what is on tap for Act 2, the second installment in this multi-part essay. Meanwhile, in Act 3, land transportation’s future is what will be considered.

– Alan Kandel