Tube envy

With higher fuel prices, an effective public transportation system is a must.

Your humble correspondent here, checking in from beautiful (and, yes, rainy) London. The sites are nice and all, but the real attention-grabber so far has been the public transportation. Especially as we continue to haggle over new light-rail lines, it’s important to keep some bigger perspective on what exactly makes a public transportation useful.

Of course, we’re faced now with a greater need for decent transportation than ever before. Oil left $100 per gallon behind long ago, and the gas pump dishes out some serious damage. We aren’t likely to see the return of $2 gas – worldwide demand probably isn’t going to be plummeting any time soon. With that reality in mind, we desperately need to start re-evaluating how we deal with transportation and city planning issues in this country.

The United States has the least-dense cities in the world. New York, our most packed city, checks in at a fairly modest 40 people per hectare. European cities often crack 60 or 70, and major Asian cities like Hong Kong blow past 300. This default system of more sprawling cities makes our reliance on cars a necessity. When gas is cheap, that might not be much of a problem (environmental issues aside). Traffic is the worst of your worries. But with five-dollar gas, the problem is much more severe.

With an expensive-fuel future on the horizon, now is the time to re-evaluate how we utilize public transportation. The idea is a simple one: make public transportation more attractive than using a car. The methods, of course, can vary – part of the solution is to use concepts like congestion pricing that charge motorists who use busy roads during peak times. But just as important are the ways by which we improve the public transportation.

Ease of use is the most important factor. The Go-To system now in use on the Twin Cities’ busses, and trains is an important step. (London uses an analogous system called Oyster cards.) But there is more to ease of use than just streamlining the payment system. The busses and trains need to run relatively frequently, and it needs to be easy to tell when the next one arrives.

One of the biggest hassles of using busses, as we all know, is the uncertainty. There’s the scheduled time the bus is supposed to arrive, but there’s always the chance it could be a few minutes early. That means, to ensure you don’t miss your ride, you need to get to the stop far too early. The solution here is to increase frequency, lessening the penalty for missing a bus. If the next one is showing up five minutes later, you don’t have to worry as much about being late for work. Again, the Twin Cities are doing a decent job on this front with Hi-Frequency lines, but more can be done.

The expansion of a rail system can, if executed correctly, be the biggest asset of a public transportation system. They’re efficient, can be run on relatively exact schedules, and can run frequently. But they require extensive planning. At first glance, a map of London’s tube system can be overwhelming, but after a trip or two it feels fairly intuitive. You can’t design something like that piecemeal. It requires a long-term strategy to craft a rail system to adequately cover a major metropolitan area. The proposed light-rail line to St. Paul is a start, but if we’re ever going to seriously create a system that can replace cars, it’s going to take much more. It might seem expensive, but at this point there are no cheap options.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]