Comment of the Day: On the Other Side of the Tracks

COMMENT OF THE DAY: ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS Trains to Office Buildings“The love affair with trains by a certain group of urbanists in the US is a ‘grass is greener on the other side’ mentality; they always point how wonderful public transport is in Europe. Well, if you actually lived in you Europe (and I have for many years), you realize that public transport is a horrible pain in the ass to live with every day. It’s inefficient if you have to go anywhere that is not on direct route, you have to make plans days in advance if you need to be across town at a particular time, you have to go to the market every F-ing day to buy food because you can’t carry more than a couple of bags at a time. You eventually give up after a while and end up confining your life to within a couple of blocks of your house. Don’t even get me started when the weather is bad. There’s one thing everyone in dense European cities dreams of: owning a car.” [commonsense, commenting on Which Came First: the Traffic or the Freeway Lanes?] Illustration: Lulu

20 Comment

  • I lived for years in Europe. Came back here and I thought that the need to drive a car to go anywhere was a horrible pain in the ass.

  • The effectiveness of rail in European cities (and in certain older US Cities) has everything to do with where you live in the City. If you are rich you live near the center of the urban core, where all the trains come together and where most of the City’s primary cultural, recreational, and other assets are. Life is good: your car is a luxury that pretty much always stays garaged, and you get around on the train.
    If you’re poor, your experience in Europe is markedly different. You can’t afford the urban core, so you’re relegated to what the French call “banlieues”. You may have one rail line that is sort of close to your house (a 20 minute walk), but to get anywhere that’s not on that rail line means riding the train all the way into town to connect to a different train.
    This sounds like an argument against trains. It is not. I like commuter rail. I’ve used it when I lived in New York and I would love to have that option where I live now in Sugar Land, Texas. My argument is that cars and trains are both hugely important to a healthy city. Cars alone mean gridlock the second the area becomes more urban than suburban. Trains alone mean that the poor are isolated and suffer from it (like they do in much of Europe). A system that relies on both: where people drive to commute rail stations and then hop a train into the City, is really the right answer.

  • I’ve lived both experiences and can’t say either is superior from a lifestyle perspective. Yes, you have to go to the store every few days instead of every week, but the difference is you probably have a market within a block or two of where you live, so it’s not a big deal. I used to live across the street from a grocery store in New York. I didn’t even stock the fridge most of the time- I just went across the street and picked up what I needed for the meal. Not having a vehicle also frees you of car insurance, maintenance, parking, and all the other hassles that come with car ownership. I’ve also lived in medium density places (Washington DC, Houston Heights), and find them to be the best of both worlds. I can (and do) own a car, but I can also get by without one.

  • It’s not either-or. It’s about a complete system of both public transit and roads, etc, with each user choosing the best option for them. The pro-transit side knows this but does a poor job of educating the anti-transit side. The whole debate is about to get very interesting in coming years when autonomous car tech makes freeways vastly more efficient.

  • “There’s one thing everyone in dense European cities dreams of: owning a car”

    haha, good one. If he really did live in Europe for many years as he says, I’m guessing he didn’t meet a lot of locals. The examples given of the inconveniences of public transport are over-the-top, and could be countered with many instances where a car is just as annoying if not worse.
    People do complain about public transport in dense European cities, but they just want it to work better, not to replace it with cars

  • I’d rather live in an apartment that is centrally-located and well-served by public transport than in an apartment that requires me to use my car for everything.

    But I’d much rather live in a house with a yard, and drive for most of my errands, than either.

  • @ Jeff: EXACTLY!

  • Bus rapid transit is the best practical public transport solution. Public trains will always be clunky due to severe routing limitations due to ridiculously high costs to build but having a relatively few key connector trains is ok.

  • @JoeDirt for BRT to work well, it has to function like a heavy rail system. Too much flexibility, and it’s just a fancy bus, with all of regular buses’ disadvantages.

    BRT makes sense in countries where there isn’t the capital available to construct a full heavy rail system. However, it’s a compromise that’s best remedied by putting in rails and saving on maintenance and fuel costs over the long term.

  • This is not at all my experience from my time in Chicago or New York. The public transit is pretty darned useful.

  • It has to be a combination of choices. There is too much argument that it has to be one or the other. Freeways would be great if they had a combination of other options that feed to or from just as would rail. We can’t keep widening freeways or adding little segments to the rail every 10 years. Just look at the Katy as a perfect example. of all those years of pain through construction only to end up worse off. They went in and tore up the perfectly good rail line that could have supplemented growth and offered additional choice.

    The smarter choice would have been to add a commuter rail, offer incentives to get people to use the bus system and HOV lanes, add bus routes that mirror the loops, time lights so you aren’t stopping at every intersection, and any other creative idea. It will take a combination of platforms to improve traffic flow. Sure, it cannot be expected that rail is going to stop at every door-stop, but thats where you factor in other choices like bus, taxi, uber for short distances etc. Keep the car, to keep choice, but offer a system of options that work together. I don’t understand why politicians can’t figure it out. They keep building freeways with the same design flaws and then look back and wonder why its not working.

  • In the past month, I have had more issues with riding the bus than I have with MetroRail. Several of my buses were doing detours due to road construction downtown, which meant I waited at a stop for 20 minutes before I was able to figure out that something wasn’t right. And just last week there was some buzz about bus stacking, which I have also experienced. So while you get some route design flexibility with busses, they also can get stuck in traffic and at railroad crossings which can upset the whole system. At least with the train, I get a dependable and timely route guarantee.

  • Here is a thought: Cities are just too big. Look at Shanghai. Great public transit system. But streets are choked with traffic. People on scooters ride almost shoulder to shoulder. People pay over $20k a year for a permit to be able to use the highways because you simply cannot move on the side streets in a passenger car. London has crazy vehicle congestion charges. Overnight garage contracts in NY, Boston, etc. cost as much as a decent sized house in the suburbs. Yet, every city in the US jumps up and down at the idea of growth. Maybe it is time for civic leaders to just tell people to stay away. No room on the roads. Or state legislatures could pass bans on moving to certain metro areas and require people to move to smaller towns/cities to help them revitalize. La Grange is a lovely place. Next time someone tries to move to Austin and choke up I-35 even more, Gov. Abbot could order them to move to La Grange instead.
    And scene. But seriously. I wonder whether the idea of a well functioning mega city with millions of people is just something that cannot exist without significant quality of life issues. Maybe the future of urban planning is to just give up and find ways to get people to repopulate rural towns and smaller cities.

  • Public transit is good if you live close by. If not it SUCKS big time. The hub and spoke system layout id so 19th century..and there usually are NOT enough amenities- you know,grocery stores (and not across the street @ Heightsresident ); but conveniently within a decent distance. And don’t tell anyone they can supplement their transit experience with riding bicycles- that’l be many trips to and fro to transport a weeks worth of groceries. I did it for 13 years and it was a pain in the ASS !!!! Public transit would work if the authorities actually build a system that served higher density areas with historic high bus ridership. METRO has gone into MASSIVE debt ,blown all of its $600 plus reserves on building a system that doesn’t even serve the higher population areas of Houston, nor our 2 MAJOR airports.That;s because the Yellow Cab Co. which owns MOST of the supposedly “independent” cab companies -DOES NOT want ANY competition ( Go Uber & Lyft) . I say screw the cab companies. Build the darn train to the airports with stop along the way.. And add lines to Greenway Plaza, the Galleria, etc…Eventually if our short sighted auto-centric republican trolls in Austin actually grown some balls and approve the BILLIONS in bond $$$,Texas could have a high speed rail system .. We’ll see…

  • Everyone loves a good case study of one.
    So you’ve lived in a place with poor transportation, like most Americans.

    I’ve lived in places with great transportation networks in Europe and Japan and hate having to use a car for short trips.
    I do love a good road trip (across Europe, Japan, or the US), but I’d rather not have to drive to EVERYTHING.
    The worst part of American-style planning is that you don’t get the choice.

  • I’ll be the first to admit that Paris’ public transit system sucks, and I didn’t even live there.
    Amsterdam has an amazing system.
    As you caveat only places where one has lived, this is all I can comment on. Amsterdam especially has a very complete system. They have trolley (light rail, honestly) for short distances. They have subway for medium distances, they have commuter trains for long distances. They have buses to fill the gaps. I only had to grocery shop once every week. Twice, actually, regular grocery shopping at AH, and then again at the market.
    You deal with the weather. That is how it works.
    It’s absolutely true that people knew I was American and knew I owned a car and asked me why I was so happy to put up without a car. I would always tell them the equivalent Dutch proverb for “the other side of the fence is always greener.”

  • I second the praise for the Dutch system. You buy a single OV-chipkaart, similar to a Metro Q card, load it up, and you can use it on:
    – the local buses
    – the local trams that are somewhat like Houston’s light rail, stopping every five to ten blocks or so
    – the local train that stops at every podunk town, with perhaps a couple stops in a big city
    – the express inter-city train that gets you halfway across the country in 2 hours with very few stops
    You can combine all of these modes of transportation in a single trip. Transferring between trains is easy; they use the same stations. Signage is in Dutch and English, and IIRC, the announcements are also bilingual.

  • Having options is good, but options are also expensive. In large multi-centric low-density cities that are neither geographically constrained or within a reasonable commuting distance of another large city, the relative efficacy of providing options for the sake of having options is…much more fiscally and operationally difficult. Having many resource-intensive routes poses a huge opportunity cost to transportation as a system and as a sector of the economy.

    On the other hand, if you look at having options through another lens, that of flexible-route modes of transportation (cars, carpools, shuttles, rideshares, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, feet, and local buses to some limited extent) all of these make use of ordinary flat pavement. All of these can be routed according to immediate demand or system constraints; it is also possible to give some of them priority such as by having bike trails or HOV lanes and then to route them seamlessly back onto the local infrastructure at little capital cost and effectively no operating costs. These modes have options built into them, and because they are fiscally sound they can and do exist ubiquitously.

    Thats not to say that route-based transit has no place in the world. It does. It can be used for congestion relief where additional pavement has become infeasible or as a direct subsidy to low-income neighborhoods, but that tends to rely on a premise that there is a significant cost delta for individuals using it rather than an alternate mode; and if that’s the case, then that solution (in addition to being expensive) may serve to worsen socioeconomic segregation.

  • @GoogleMaster, you call that a feature, I call THAT the nightmare, you have to switch multiple modes of transport just to get anywhere worthwhile. You have to wait usually a while to switch, which is just wasted time. “You deal with the weather, that’s just the way it is” is ridiculous, why deal with it if you don’t have to and don’t need to, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t WANT to. My time is much to valuable to waste an hour and a half each way to take multiple modes of transport to get to the doctor’s office, or to the consulate to get a simple stamp, or to that new trendy restaurant that opened by the docks and not down the street. How dare those bastards open in a new hot area, and not in the old convenient area next to my house.

  • It may sound oversimplified and even a tad idealistic, but I think that if the central paradigm guiding planning/construction/architecture was designing/building for humans, at the human scale then we would get better results, whether it was using public transit, cars, or something else – who else are we designing for anyways? cars? trains? No, it’s for us, humans.
    And if someone cites the the “give to people what they demand/want,” I tend to think of “people don’t always want what’s actually best for them,” and also that many of our desires are not really ours if we admit that many, if not most, of us are manipulated and shaped to think in certain ways and want certain things. Is there actually free will? Well, that’s another story, maybe.