Getting Environmentally Friendly Transportation Back on the Rails

In an article last year, I suggested that environmentally-conscious travelers should take the train. Recently Iíve been taking my own advice: On weekdays, once I get from my home in the country to my current contract office, I take the Toronto subway everywhere from there. On my recent trip to London, I took the Underground and National Rail everywhere, which entailed lots of walking (and since every minute spent walking adds three minutes to your healthy life, that is no sacrifice) and also entailed the kindness of my out-of-town hosts to pick me up at the nearest station. I took the ultramodern and luxurious (and expensive) Heathrow Express high-speed train from the city to the airport.

In San Jose last month, I took the (underused) LRT between the airport and the conference centre. Iíve taken the commuter ëGOí train into and out of Toronto (and would take it more often if it came nearer to where I live). Iíve taken the Canadian national passenger rail system train ëVIAí to London Ontario and to Montreal. Iíve been on the Metro in Montreal and Paris, and tram cars in San Francisco, Toronto and Frankfurt.

Other than the fact they all ride on rails, the above user experiences have nothing in common. Comfort, cost, speed, amenities, efficiency, reliability, service and convenience are all over the map. (No I take that back: They all have one other thing in common ñ they are all money-losing propositions.)

To the extent they replace automobile miles and are reasonably full, they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and are therefore a ëgreení form of transportation. Some of them are not losing a lot of money. And if drivers were charged the full cost of the road damage they caused, rent on the vast amount of real estate that has to be paved over to accommodate them, and the remediation cost of the incremental pollution they cost, they would be losing a lot more money than the rail services plying the same routes. So why arenít we following the example of some European countries and investing in rail big-time?

The main reason is cultural: Many people hate traveling with strangers, and will do and pay almost anything to avoid it (especially when they are reimbursed or given a tax deduction for doing so). The busiest (and often least unprofitable) rail systems offer few amenities to passengers to allow them to do useful things while theyíre in transit, so they cannot improve productivity as much as they might. Because theyíre relatively cheap, they tend to attract some rather peculiar and sometimes anti-social and even criminal passengers, making some routes unpleasant and even unsafe. And because theyíre not door-to-door, they require people to walk a lot more, sometimes in poor weather, which involves trading off time expended now against increased life expectancy later ñ a tough choice.

The second reason is that, to be useful, rails need to be added in very busy places, displacing existing uses of space at great cost in public inconvenience (during construction), noise and expropriation. Where they use existing routes, they need to compete with freight trains for scarce rail resources ñ and freight is a more profitable use of these resources, and also saves greenhouse gas emissions compared to truck shipment.

For these two reasons, rail has now, in most places, fallen short of the ëtipping pointí at which it becomes sensible to rip up and displace existing land use for the benefit of social and environmental savings. A recent study by the very progressive Toronto government concluded that it made more economic sense to add ëhigh occupancy vehicleí (HOV) lanes (available only to cars with 3 or more passengers) to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, than to extend the subway system (which works quite well for the areas it covers, but which lacks coverage outside a few main traffic corridors).

Not only is this a pragmatic economic decision, it reflects an understanding of human culture as well. As I have said so often, we do what we must, then we do whatís easy, then we do whatís fun. Riding the rails is, for many, none of these three things. Trying to make rail transportation easier (more, faster routes) and more fun (more amenities and comfort) generally entails making it more expensive, and itís risky ñ thereís no guarantee people will change their established, private commuting behaviour no matter how easy and fun it is, if driving is considered easier and more fun. To make it work, it has to be compulsory ñ the only way from point A to B ñ and for most politicians making it compulsory is political suicide. Even expropriating lanes from existing expressways as HOV lanes raises howls of protest from drivers who claim they cannot carpool and hence get nothing in return for a slower commute.

In his book Heat, George Monbiot argues that airplane travel, the most environmentally destructive form of travel by any measure, cannot be made less damaging and must simply be prohibited or rationed. He also calls for fast, frequent, comfortable buses with many amenities (i.e. easy and fun) using HOV lanes to be added to connect the outermost subway/rail stations in cities with those citiesí major suburban and exurban hubs. That idea makes sense, but probably only if the alternative of driving along these routes is either prohibited or made prohibitively slow or prohibitively expensive.

What heís talking about is what Dave Snowden calls ëattractorsí and ëbarriersí in complex systems ñ mechanisms and interventions that positively (attractors) or negatively (barriers) affect human behaviours. My argument is that attractors that make things easy and fun are rarely enough ñ you also need barriers that make the behaviours you want to discourage impossible (not just difficult or socially unacceptable). Thatís the cynic in me, but Iíd love to hear some examples to disprove this (North American examples, please: Europeans have been known to do things that are easy and fun even when this involves changing behaviour voluntarily; North Americans, not so much).

So we can, and should, institute big-time taxes (barriers) on ëbadsí (consumption of gasoline, gouging up roads with 18-wheelers, driving in areas well-served by public transport) and use the proceeds to provide subsidies (attractors) for ëgoodsí (clean, renewable energy and energy-efficient transportation). We should stop allowing transportation costs as a tax-deductible expense (barrier). We should stop building new expressways for cars (barrier). We should make public transportation more convenient, faster, more productive, more efficient and more reliable (attractors). We should institute Monbiotís luxury peripheries-out public transportation systems, with gourmet restaurants and wifi onboard, and perhaps even shopping malls on rails (attractor).

But, especially for the rich and those reimbursed for extravagance by their employer, none of this will be enough. In fact, by literally driving the poor and self-employed off the roads, these steps will actually make the expressways faster and more convenient for the die-hards and encourage others to join them (a phenomenon Monbiot calls the ërebound effectí).

Since above all else we do what we must, what is needed are barriers that make extravagance impossible, while at the same time providing attractors to encourage others to support the new barriers. For example, if we were to dig up roads and parking lots and replace them with gardens, parks and community centres, the outraged commuters would face not only the courageous politicians but also the fans of these new pedestrian amenities. Skeptics might call this a ëdivide and conquerí strategy but I think it could work.

What other barrier-attractor one-two combinations can you think of, that would make driving (and flying) virtually impossible while simultaneously creating a new delight? For example, organizations can already get a win-win by allowing their employees to telecommute (more productivity, lower office costs) but this is not enough to encourage a lot of organizations (especially those in government services) to go this route, even with videoconferencing now being virtually free. What could we do that would make commuting long distances so onerous as to be impossible, while at the same time making telecommuting even more attractive to both employer and employee? And what could we do to make ëbuying localí a more delightful experience, while making driving to box malls even more excruciating than it already is? The answers need to be simple and inexpensive aswell as barriers and attractors in one.

Imagine this, and let me know what you come up with. 

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9 Responses to Getting Environmentally Friendly Transportation Back on the Rails

  1. Have you read Nine Shift? The authors predict the rise of the use of trains in the next decade, and not for environmental reasons. They have already noted an increase in light rail in the US.

  2. cindy says:

    Since I moved back to NL, I have the alternative of not having to drive. I only drive when I must which is getting more often these days due to age and health. Still, I combine walking and taking the train whenever I can. The problem with free market economy, as promote by the US and pushed by Thatcher, all things that once used to be public goods (hence subsidized by tax money), now mostly privatized. Hence why the British rail is so expensive these days. I strongly believe public transportations (the same with postage, health care, public libraries etc.) should not and cannot be a ‘money making’ service. I do not mean it has to be badly manage, but the aim should be in providing transportation and not in making money. In Anwerpt, Belgium, if I remembered correctly, local buses are free. And because it is free, most people do not need to use their cars, less traffic jams, buses have no problem to be on time. And of course there should be less tear and wear on the road systems. Some cities in Holland are providing free buses services on weekends. As for what can one do on a train. That depends. Must we always have a lap-top? Can one live without a lap-top? Since I stopped work (health reason), I am so happy I am no longer slave to my lap-top. I carry books or printed document to keep me busy. I carry note-pad. It is all just a matter of adjusting.

  3. Karen M says:

    I was just saying to another train passenger that I would love to be on a focus group re: our regional transit service… and they wouldn’t have to pay me. I have plenty of gripes, not all of them relevant to your questions, but here they come anyway:Too few cars on the local train I have to ride, since I don’t live far enough out from the city’s center. Surprisingly, we don’t get a discount when we must stand. Really poor communication with transit passenger when there are delays.Inconsiderate passengers who must be asked, before they will move a bag or slide over to let someone sit down. (In fact, I once commented ironically to a man who just automatically moved over to let me sit down, that he must have been from another country. He was from Belgium.)Too many iPods leaking too much staticky noise…. really annoying. And then there is being bashed by oversized backpacks being swung down the aisle.Conductors who shout the station names in the morning, shattering one’s still waking nerves, yet say nothing at the end of the day, when it is dark, and you can’t see a thing.And this one might sound really picky, but the older equipment can really attack the senses, e.g., when you can smell the burning oil on the wheels or gears, or whatever, sometimes in the morning… it’s harsh on an empty or queasy stomach. (Because of dietary issues, etc., I usually wait until I get to work to eat breakfast.)QWL would improve significantly if I lived far enough away to justify enough cars that one of them could be not just a quiet (iPodless) car, but a knitting car. Sometimes I really want to go back to driving… because I want to listen to the radio (can’t stand earplugs), and come and go when I please, since the car would not leave without me. The train often does.

  4. Stephen says:

    “The main reason is cultural: Many people hate traveling with strangers, and will do and pay almost anything to avoid it…”I think this is a really important point. Modernism has terrified most people.

  5. Max says:

    Dave, I really think you should pay a visit to Portland, Oregon. Portland is a city that bucked the trend back in the 1960s-1970s to build out a massive grid of freeways. They converted a huge federalfreeway money allocation to use as seed money to bootstrap Max, the locallight rail system. Of course this was not an isolated detail– it was part and parcel of an integrated regional planning vision that includes the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), and locating higher densitybusiness/residential near the Max lines, Flex-cars, and many otherfacets too numerous to detail here. The Max is a success…in fact some would say a success disaster. If they added more cars, they would probably all be filled during commute hours. If they added more park and ride lots, even more peoplewould use the Max. Sadly due to wars and other federal disasterscutting funds to the state and local level and suppressing a returnto a full employment economy like we had in the 1990s, Max has had to cut back service and raise fares. But even so, the trains are widely used commute hours and other times of day as well. Max addresses many of the issues you and others here comment on. The fact that the freeways have not been built up to the 8 lanescommon in other large urban areas means that random freeway gridlockas well as commute time gridlock is more common — a huge incentive (or in your terms barrier) to switch to mass transit. The downtown area is part of a fareless zone. This is a big attractorfor people to get a free ride around, and skip the hassle (barrier) of parking (which costs a medium amount in most of downtown). You know that an amazing number of people read on the Max. Who knowsif that is part of Portland’s amazing per-capita book-reader status, the success of Powells, and a hub for science fiction, but I digress). Many others listen to podcasts. Some people actually converse with strangers (gasp!) Station names are announced by a pre-recorded voice as well as displayed on a readout in each car. The proximity of so many riders means less crime due to an isolated rider appearing vulnerable. The driver announces the reason for a delay, and many stations have displays that show the time remaining until the next train. So yes, there remain some irritations to light rail even here in green Portland. Homeless people and/or drunken people can be a problem when they hassle others. Women sometimes have to worry about freaky guys following them off the train. Standing room only is not fun when many riders may have an hour ride. Inconsiderate people exist both on Max, on bike paths, and on the freeway, so that seems like a wash to me. The cars are electric, so there is no diesel or other fumes that can be such a mind-fogging pain. As far as wi-fi goes, the city justadded free wi-fi coverage, but I do not know if it works inside the Max cars. I have almost never seen anyone use a laptop–not sure why,as they are standard issue for all those business robots on planes. Keep in mind there are hardly any high-tech industries in Portland compared to San Jose, so there are fewer robots working 126 hour weeksand a ton more artists. The funny thing is, that riding the Max is not considered that greenof a way around in Portland, even though it is clearly more sustainablethan driving by yourself in a car. There is considerable social pressure to ride a bicycle or other non-polluting vehicle, and huge numbersof people ride year round, even in the rain. Portland is considereda very bicycle-friendly city, and is also very walker-friendly.So what really stands out to me is how different Portland is comparedto all the places you mention. The tipping point was reached here sometime ago, and we went beyond that to progress to even greener ways(bicycling, etc).

  6. Max says:

    ps–when I say ride a bicycle year-round, I mean ride to work and back. Yes, that means in the drizzle, rain, slush, ice, and across bridges as well!

  7. cindy says:

    Today on BBC1 (in UK) there was a programme promoting buying local (British) home grown food. Since I saw only the last 5-10 minutes of the programe, the programme seems NOT only promoting buying British, but the main theme is to reduce importing goods, therefore reducing transportation fuel. The idea is to eat and buy seasonal food that can be produced locally. Makes sense.I have another additon: buy quality goods. I wonder if there is data comparing the energy costs on producing quality goods vs. cheap goods. Cheap goods generally do not last long therefore one has to buy more of the same again and again. Quality goods on the other hand, although is more expensive, but last longer. I am quite sure there are many examples we all can share. Imagine the reduction of transportation/fuel costs? Enormous.

  8. cindy says:

    This is my 3rd post. This subject draws me back …sorry!I came across this posting today by John Thackara of “Doors of Perception”. It was 6 Feb, 2006, titled ‘From my car to scalar’>>To a car company, replacing the chrome wing mirror on an SUV with a carbon fibre one is a step towards sustainable transportation. To a radical ecologist, all motorised movement is unsustainable. So when is transportation sustainable, and when is it not? Eric Britton, an expert on the subject, had the good idea of posting a text at Wikipedia which will evolve as a shared description, if not definition, of the concept. In a new mobility discussion group Chris Bradshaw emphasizes that “light” transport systems are not, per se, sustainable – only less unsustainable than commuting by car. “Light rail supports far-flung suburbs, while street cars support, well, street-car suburbs” says Bradshaw; “likewise, a smaller, more efficient, or alternative-fuel vehicle is only less unsustainable than another private vehicle. It will still take as much space on the road and in parking lots, it will still threaten the life and limb of others, it will still create noise, and it still will require lots of energy and resources to manufacture, transport to a dealer, and dispose of when its life ends”. It is an important part of sustainable transport and communities, says Bradshaw, to respect what he calls the scalar hierarchy, in which the trips taken most frequently are short enough to be made by walking (even if pulling a small cart), while the next more frequent trips require a bike or street car, and so on. “If one adheres to this then there are so few trips to be made by car >>> that owning one is foolish”. My own experience living in the US, unless one lives in the cities, otherwsie there is the need to drive to a shopping mall. Even to a 7-11. In NL, the design for housing estate is different. We generally have a shopping center within walking distance. In my case I live above the shopsand eating places. And there are 3 alternate shopping locations within 25 minutes walk. I generally take my daily exercise and shopping at the sametime.If I look at the word ‘sustainable’, I do not just think of it in terms of materials (such as transportations etc.), I think of it more of ‘community and society’. A community and society that is sustainable is one that people interact daily. It should not be a seperate place to sleep, and a place to work. Workpalce and sleeping place should be connected in a continuous fashion. I do not necessary speak to all the people I meet daily doing my shopping, but I know they are in my community. The same token of taking the trains or buses to work, the companionship of walking from homes to station, sharing the same coach … It is these kinds of ‘closeness’ that would make a place ‘sustainable’. We now seems to emphasize and move ‘community and society’ to cyberspace. If we do that, we ‘disconnect’ society and community even further. We isolate ourselves even further. We each live in our own little getto that we call home, and feel so proud that we ‘have cyber friends and communities’. My arguement is, we are being forced to be ‘individualistic’, therefore we do not know the benefits of ‘sharing a bus, or a train’, we demand to have our own transportation. If we want to have ‘sustainable’ transportation, we need to restructure our physcial living condition … redesign community and bring back sharing.

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