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Rail Investment Fails To Change Commuting Habits

The time has come to call rail transit a planner's pipe dream. Californians have poured tax money into rail for more than a decade, apparently on a well-intentioned aspiration that if we build tracks, we will ride the train. But according to a U.S. Census report on trip-to-work travel, Californians have not found the train station. In fact, trip-to-work transit mode data in the 2000 decennial census is dismal. This is a tough pill for us planning professionals to swallow. I like the idea of riding a sleek light-rail train into a pedestrian-friendly California urban center as much as the next planner. But it is time to face the facts. I also like riding the Monorail around Disneyland, but none of us ever bought Walt's line that it was the transportation system of tomorrow. The census data is clear and stark: the use of public transportation as a mode of travel to work has grown only by one tenth of a percent of all transportation modes during the 10-year span. What's worse is that the "drove alone" mode increased by two tenths of a percent of all work travel trips during the same period. This is not a good trend line for rail advocates to cite. This information flies in the face of the expectations established with the public while we were convincing ourselves to invest heavily in rail. According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, 9% of the state's transportation dollar is currently going to rail. This funding is commonly augmented by local sales taxes in urban counties. The communities that have a sales tax and a rail system allocate huge chunks of the local taxes to rail projects. But this is just in from the Census: Rail trips to work account for only slightly more than 1% of the total trips to work in California. Despite earlier investments in the Bay Area and San Diego during the 1970s and 1980s, it was really the 1990s when urban rail system expansion shifted into third gear. Sacramento, San Jose, and Los Angeles all opened significant light rail systems. Los Angeles County went even further, launching a multi-county heavy rail system and introducing its Metrorail subway. Meanwhile, the Bay Area saw significant extensions of BART and the introduction of state-funded heavy rail from the Central Valley exurbs. San Diego expanded the Trolley and introduced regional heavy rail commuter service to its coastal suburbs. All this investment should produce results, right? When digging deep, one can find a limited amount of good news. For example, of all of the modes of travel to work tracked by the Census, rail experienced the largest percentage increase since 1990: 57%. However, we started with very low numbers. In 1990, only 95,000 of 13.9 million daily California work trips were via rail, according to the Census Bureau. Even worse, some of the 2000 rail trips may have come at the expense of other forms of transit. Buses, for example, dropped as a means of work travel by about 2%. And raw number growth was still by far the greatest in the "drove alone" category, which logged an increase of more than 450,000 trips per day from 1990 to 2000. Even in San Diego, where the Trolley was expanded twice during the 1990s and heavy rail was introduced to the north coastal suburbs, drive-alone trips to work surged from 71% in 1990 to 74% in 2000. Meanwhile, transit trips grew to only 3.4% of total work trips in 2000 from 3.3% in 1990. In San Joaquin County, where two heavy rail services were essentially first introduced in the 1990s, the data is little better. Drive-alone trips at least remained essentially unchanged from 1990 to 2000, holding strong at 74.6% of work trips. Transit trips grew a smidgen from 1.19% to 1.43%. One is forced to concede the apparently obvious: The nature of housing and job growth in a spatially dispersed pattern far outpaces the ability of fixed-line transit systems to make a dent in the overall commuting patterns. While we construct one linear system from housing to a job center, 10 more job centers and 100 more housing developments sprout up off the transit line. We will never catch up. This is what rail critics have been saying all along. So even though we continue invest in rail, let's adjust our expectations downward, and quit fooling ourselves. And, after all, the Monorail is fun to ride. Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.

CP&DR at California APA Conference October 1-4

CP&DR supports APA conference in Anaheim (and online), Oct. 1-4, with panel discussion, booth, special offers. >>read more

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