Can Mass Transit be Cool?
When did people stop saying “mass transit” in favor of speaking about modes – high speed rail, light rail, street cars, and circulator buses? Undoubtedly the present views about transportation result from a combination of factors including the price of gasoline, traffic congestion, concerns about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, and a general willingness to discuss concepts like “multi-modalism” and “livability.”
Regardless of cause and effect the fact remains that while “mass transit” was always the poor step-child in the transportation world, light rail and street cars along with Complete Streets and transit oriented development, are now visionary and compelling. Transit is cool!
In cities like Washington, D.C., Portland and Boston, where subway and light rail systems are long established, the utility of moving people rather than cars was settled long ago. Even today in the District of Columbia the merits of a new street car system are not at issue. The debate concerns whether the overhead wires needed to power the system will diminish the streetscape.
Far more interesting is the success of subways, street cars and light rail in auto-dependent places that were so often identified as classic examples of urban sprawl. In Los Angeles, for example, daily ridership on just the Blue, Green, Red and Gold rail lines (opened between 1990 and 2003) is almost 300,000. The Valley Metro in Phoenix, at just 16-months old, is already exceeding ridership expectations.
Powerful trends are at work shaping decisions about mobility. It’s hard to know whether reduced petroleum costs for a future generation of plug-in hybrid electric cars will decrease ridership on existing light rail lines or on those presently under construction. Certainly there are risks for cities like Charlotte that are proposing a street car line as part of a strategy to revitalize the urban core. However, if the experiences of cities outside the United States are any guide, the possibilities for lots more street cars, light rail and circulators are absolutely worth the investment.