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Greg Selkoe

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Grand Theft Auto 3: Rail City

Posted: 05/27/10 12:27 PM ET

This is the last of my 3 part installment of posts entitled Grand Theft Auto. In this post I will discuss inner city public rail transportation and automobile use in urban settings. This is a subject that's near and dear to my heart. Ever since my grandfather took me on my first subway ride I have always loved subways and LRVs (light rail vehicles). I can still remember riding Boston's elevated orange line (long gone) or taking the E-line street car to the old Boston Garden as a little kid to see the Celts play (the E-line is also gone, but hopefully not forever, I will address in a moment). But my longing for lines lost is more than just nostalgia; having grown up at the end of the auto-only era, I have watched with enthusiasm as my long-held belief that public transit was first class transit be confirmed as more and more cities realized that the current auto dominance is un-workable and has greatly wounded many US cities.

It's no coincidence that the cities built prior to the age of the automobile, that did not rip up all of their tracks, and fully destroy the pre-auto urban fabric (many did) are today some of the most desirable cities to live in - cities like, San Fran, New York, Boston, Chicago, etc. Whereas cities that took a different tact and chose to completely retrofit their downtowns for the automobile by removing lines and clearing buildings for parking lots like Detroit, LA, Cleveland, and St. Louis have barren and struggling downtowns (but plenty of parking!). Cities that have put public transit, cabs, and walking first over increased parking facilities have vibrant and prosperous downtowns. Cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Dallas that have the most parking per sq. ft downtown are failed downtowns that few want to visit and only do if their office is located there. These cities are now doing what they can to re-think their policies; places like Dallas, Seattle, and Salt lake City are putting in light rail, building more densely downtown and moving away from the parking uber-alles mentality. They are doing this because the alternative policy has been thoroughly disproven and has been financially ruinous (unfortunately, they had to learn the hard way). Cities that are full of cars also have much higher asthma rates, the smog and exhaust from cars damages trees and historic buildings, and pollutes the air. As I mentioned in previous posts it is our collective responsibility to help our country move away from foreign oil and polluting the planet and more urban rail is a huge step.

Thankfully, many cities have begun to take steps to mend their ways and put in, or increase rail. City governments have realized that dense diverse cities that are bustling and walkable attract cultural creatives as well as the information based jobs that are now the life blood of prospering urban cores. But the fight continues as the majority of Americans still do not see the value of public transit (particularly rail) or don't believe that it will be used. If you have any doubt it will be just ask Portland or Seattle who have had tremendous success and have seen their new LRV lines packed with riders and exceeding predicated ridership levels. It's the young people coming of age now that we need on board. We all need to help continue to loosen the grip that the auto and oil industry has had on the America psyche, the product of a 60 year campaign by auto and oil to make the car the main transit to the exclusion of other types of transportation. Still people say the answer is more highways and increased road capacity, they still don't see cars are the problem to our woes not the solution. But young people see dense cities with rail transit as cool, desirable, and fun and the suburbs as stifling and conformist, which is the polar opposite of older generations who feared cities and viewed them as dangerous and subways and light rail as second rate transit.

But even in Boston (a case study of the huge value of rail if there ever was one) many still don't get it. (I told you in previous posts that Boston was not off the hook!) Cities like Boston that were fortunate to have extensive systems built in the first half of the 20th century have basically been coasting: the Mayor of Boston and city officials have been saying the right things on public transit for the last 18 years (yes our Mayor has been in office that long!), but have done little to engage or push the state government who runs the public transit agency in metro Boston to take any action. There has been no increase in urban rail transit in Boston for many decades, and the city government blew several chance they recently had by allowing the state to put in something called "Bus Rapid Transit" to satisfy a long standing commitment to serve an underserved community that had a rail line moved to another location in the 80's. They call it the Silver Line, but being a bus not an actual LRV line many refer to it as the "Silver Lie".

Even more regressive and misguided was the City government's thwarting of a neighborhood's 15 year quest to get the E-line LRV route restored (the one I mentioned earlier in the piece), Boston was fortunate enough to get the Federal Government to require the restoration of this line as part of highway construction mitigation. Amazingly, the city government did everything they could to block this project (one that would not be paid for by the city!), stall, and obfuscate and it was eventually killed by the Feds. The primary issue was the Mayor's belief that street rail would increase traffic and that streetcars were out of date! My hope is that when there is new political leadership in Boston that gets it the restoration of the E-line will be revisited.

Despite Boston's missed opportunities many other US cities have stepped up and are helping lead the way toward an urban rail renaissance. Let's hope Boston, home of the first US subway, gets on board soon. Despite my hometown's lag, urban rail is gaining momentum, let's keep it on track!

 

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