Friday, June 27, 2008

James Wigderson and his critics

Note: I received the following e-mail from Leah Harnack, associate editor of Mass Transit Magazine. My response is below.

Mr. Wigderson,

There were a number of questions and thoughts that came to mind as I read your rail expansion op-ed piece.

The first thing that caught my attention was the reference to rail being early 19th century technology and why would we look to that as the wave of the future. There may be some pretty old-looking systems out there, but with today's automatic train control, automated guideway transit, positive train control, automated people movers and the host of other technologies involved with intelligent transportation systems, there is very little familiarity with trains from the past.

The point you make about looking at the entire trip is very important. Transit of yesterday did not always do that and that has changed. More and more agencies are now referring to what they do as "mobility management," not as simply providing mass transit. Not only do they provide bus, ferry or rail, today's transit agencies also have programs for walking, biking, carpooling and vanpooling. Rail transit is not meant to stand on its own, it is a part of transportation planning.

I imagine you do realize that everyone that rides transit is not expected to walk "three miles" to get to their destinations. As I said, no agency or MPO creates a rail line to stand on its own. With bike ammenities, pedestrian provisions, bus routes, bus rapid transit lines or streetcar lines, the passengers aren't stranded in a dead zone.

Having had opportunities to visit cities across the country, Canada and Europe to ride the various bus and rail systems, I have the advantage of having seen what is typical and what is possible. I don't think it's members of local governments being "deprived as children" of riding Thomas the train. After experiencing it myself, I'm sure it's more that they've experienced the best in cities with mobility options and are planning for the future of our community, instead of simply looking at today.

Thank you,

Leah Harnack
Associate Editor
Mass Transit Magazine
& Sustainability Concepts

Despite all of the advances cited by Ms. Harnack, the train is still essentially a train. It runs along a fixed route (rails) requiring a substantial infrastructure outlay when first implemented (building the rails) and then more substantial infrastructure outlays every time the route needs to be changed or needs additions (more rails).

Here in Waukesha we're very familiar with trains, since it is almost impossible to cross town without being stopped by one.

No train system is very successful at taking people, goods and services from point to point without different supplementary forms of transit. This is actually a point upon which Ms. Harnack and I agree. The "three miles" was not my standard, but the standard of MMAC President Tim Sheehy who negelects to mention Ms. Harnack's point that more transit infrastructure would be needed to transport people to the rail service, from the rail service, back to the rail service, and then back again from the rail service. Again, this is also a point I raised in my Waukesha Freeman article.

Where Ms. Harnack and I disagree is the need for rail in the first place, when the other modes of transit would be just as effective (and more efficient) without the rail component.

Ms. Harnack cites her wonderful experiences in her travels riding the rails. What she should note is that almost every rail system (and every other mass transit system) is an endlessly expanding demand upon the taxpayers because it simply cannot go everywhere and serve as efficiently people using their automobiles.

Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Fred Jandt, the editor of Mass Transit Magazine.

By calling these projects boondoggles, transit opponents are saying that they are a) politically motivated and b) have no real value to the community or nation.

Now I can sit here in incredulous disbelief at that thought, but having listened to and read enough material by transit opponents, I know that they truly believe in boondoggles. They truly believe that transit really is a crock. It won’t help their community and the money being spent on it is a complete waste.

Of course, a laundry list of facts and figures can be laid at their feet as proof of transit’s value, but this doesn’t seem to change a thing. Facts and figures can be shown that prove the lack of value transit has. Of course facts and figures are like polling results in an election — they can be manipulated.

It all comes down to belief. Do you believe transit projects are just a waste of time? Those who have and use transit don’t think so. Many places I visit can’t wait to get more transit once they get a taste for it. (Emphasis added.)

Of course they do, because no matter how much “transit” they have you still can’t get there from here and back again unless those points just happen to be along a pre-arranged trail, and oh-by-the-way-I-have-stops-to-make. They have “transit” but they don’t have transportation.

In the meantime, ya gotta beliiieeevvve!