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Trains have strong romantic appeal, but from a functional perspective, they are hopelessly unable of meeting the needs of a modern sprawling city and its residents’ demand for point-to-point flexibility.

That’s starting to sink in, after decades of local planners and wonks hoping for a commuter train system. A story in today’s Idaho Statesman quotes national experts who spoke in Boise, saying a train system faces enormous obstacles here because of track quality, too many crossings, insufficient right-of-way and high cost. However, the experts (at least in the story) didn’t discuss the inherent shortcomings of rail as a transportation technology and how we have done an exceptionally poor job of requiring rail-friendly land use.

The only reason rail technology evolved is because the first machines that could convert matter into motion (steam engines) weighed tens of thousands of pounds. There were no roads to accommodate steam engines, but rails could be built to sustain the massive weight and allow them to move people and goods faster than they had ever moved before. To make up for the lack of point-to-point flexibility, people had to unload the trains and put themselves and goods on smaller, light-rail trains or electric trolleys.

Urban theorists like Kevin Lynch hold the dominant transportation technology determines the built form of a city: ancient cities relied on humans and animals, port cities relied on ships, Industrial Revolution cities relied on the rail and modern cities rely on the automobile. Not surprisingly, entire cities and small towns were designed around the limitations of the train. For a hundred years and more, the system worked.

By the time the automobile began to eclipse the train some 80 years ago, trains had nearly a century of capital and investment behind them, so they remain common to this day. Trains still work well for some things, like moving large volumes of heavy cargo, where train cars can be lifted and moved onto ships and intermodal inconvenience is kept to a minimum.

But trains are hopelessly outmoded in a modern city. True, a rail car would be able to zip quickly past Interstate 84 traffic jams, but could it take people to where they needed to go (downtown, Micron, West Boise office parks, etc.)? People being dropped off near the Boise Towne Square mall, for example, would be left at what is agruably the most pedestrian-hostile environment in Idaho. If only something could take them a little closer to their office park, the system would be much more useful!

For their part, Idaho cities have done virtually nothing to require the kind of urban design necessary for trains: buildings that come to the street, residential and commercial sharing the same property and a nice public realm – you know, the built form of classic Main Street America.

It’s not a question of population. Around a century ago, a commuter rail system operated profitably, albeit briefly, in the Boise Valley, when our population was much smaller. It’s a question of the built form of the city. With the exception of the original downtowns and neighborhoods, Treasure Valley cities are built to automotive scale, with large parking lots, huge streets and a serious lack of sidewalks.

The humble bus, however, bridges these needs nicely. In fact, with a little imagination, we could combine the advantages of trains (route priority) with the advantages of rubber-wheeled vehicles (flexibility). The concept is the Curb Guided Busway, used to good advantage in Adelaide, Australia and Nagoya, Japan:

..the O-Bahn runs on specially-built track, combining elements of both bus and rail systems … Interchanges allow buses to enter and exit the busway and to continue on suburban routes, avoiding the need for passengers to change. Buses travel at a maximum speed of 100 km/h (62 mph), and the busway is capable of carrying 18,000 passengers an hour from the City of Adelaide

The busway is a low concrete trough and the busses are fitted with “guide wheels”

The guide-wheel, which protrudes from the front sides and aligns with the track, is the most important part of the bus when travelling on the O-Bahn. Connected directly to the steering mechanism, it ‘steers’ the bus while on the track and prevents the main tyres from rubbing against the sides of the track.

So, a busway system wouldn’t require an expensive refurbishment of rails or highly specialized vehicles. We could also take advantage of our existing rail rights-of-way, so when a bus crosses over an arterial street, the crossing arms could swing down, allowing the bus to pass, just as they already do with a train. Or, the bus could leave the busway and move about on city streets, something a train could never do. As an added benefit, emergency vehicles could use the busway system.

This still wouldn’t be cheap. We’d have to pave the rail corridors, design new interchanges and educate drivers on a new transportation mode. However, given the obstacles to developing rail and the limited return we’d get for it, a Curb Guided Busway seems like the best bet.

While I risk upsetting people in the building industry,  I support recent legislation by Rep. John “Bert” Stevenson, R-Rupert, intended to charge new homes and businesses a fee for electrical system expansion.

The development industry will likely oppose this measure, but it would be shortsighted of them to do so. Idaho Power is in a near-continuous state of asking the PUC for rate increases, in part to extend power lines and build more power plants.  This isn’t fair to existing customers and it reduces opportunities for new businesses that want to set up here. Idaho Power can’t raise its rates enough to effectively deliver power, so our region has to turn away prospective industries because we can’t supply them with electricity. Existing residents are asked to pay for newcomers. The system doesn’t serve anyone very well.

A better system (what I understand Stevenson is proposing) would be  similar to how cities charge for sewer hookups. Your monthly sewer bill is strictly for maintenance and operation – none of it goes for capacity expansion. When a new home hooks up to Boise City’s sewer system, though, the developer must pay $3,150, which goes into a fund for future treatment plant expansions and new lines. That keeps the city from charging existing customers for growth, yet growth can happen because the city can fund it.

Imagine if, in the Fall of 2007, two major employers could have relocated here, because Idaho Power had a chest of money collected from impact fees and specifically set aside for new growth. Idaho Power would have been in a much better position to step forward with a plan to accommodate the new industries. The same building industry that might oppose these fees would profit greatly from the new homes and businesses that would result.

The Public Utilities Commission said Stevenson’s measure could help utilities recover costs of some growth-related capital expansion, though existing customers should bear some of the increases when facilities are expanded. That’s fair enough. The Ada County Highway District’s impact fees, first levied in 1992, aren’t intended to cover the complete costs of growth.

Once again, local option taxation is an issue in the Idaho Legislature. As i years past, the goal is to fund transit programs, which is a worthy cause. But urban planners, including the city’s own, recognize the importance of having a built environment that can actually make use of transit.

This is an opinion from the Idaho Statesman published during last year’s local option taxation struggle and it bears repeating.

 

Martin Johncox: Growth of the past 15 years is not conducive for transit

READER’S VIEW: Public Transportation

Idaho Statesman, January 23, 2008

By Martin Johncox

I’ve been following the discussion of local-option taxation and transit in the editorial pages of The Statesman. While I support local-option taxation and transit, there’s been little discussion if cities have been preparing their built environment to support transit.

From what I can tell, cities have a spotty record on enforcing the kind of development needed to make transit feasible. This lack of transit-oriented development undermines the cities’ otherwise good arguments in favor of localoption taxation.

Transit lacks point-to-point flexibility. To make up for that, people must bridge, on foot or bike, the distance between the transit stop and their destination. To get people to do this, you must build a human-scaled environment, where buildings come right to the sidewalk; things are stacked on top of each other to conserve distance; and homes, offices, shopping centers, schools and other destinations are directly connected with sidewalks.

The best examples of this kind of development locally are from a  century ago: the historic neighborhoods and the downtowns of Treasure Valley cities, developed when cars were scarce and the locations of tracks and train stops determined what got built and where. Transit friendly is necessarily pedestrian friendly.

But we’ve built just the opposite in the past 50 years. Giant parking lots, absent of sidewalks, encourage people to drive from one parking lot to the next; subdivisions are fenced from each other and neighboring shopping centers; and very long blocks and cul-de-sacs lengthen pedestrian trips.

In such an environment, people will not walk to the nearest transit stop, even if they could find it. If a train dropped off people by the mall, they would be in the middle of some of the most pedestrian-hostile development in Idaho. Could we expect a riderto catch a train or bus stopping 100 feet from their home, when it’s in a shopping center on the other side of a fence and the only other way is a half-mile walk out of the subdivision? No amount of local-option taxation flexibility will fix this.

To be fair, it’s been less than 15 years since Boise and other cities awoke to the need to build for transit. Indeed, for most of the past century, transit-friendly Main Street America was illegal to build under zoning codes. Only relatively recently have local governments become receptive to Smart Growth principles.

Yet in those past 15 years there’s been precious little progress toward enforcing transit-friendly development. Boise’s 1997 comprehensive plan was a visionary statement of urban planning that, unfortunately, has not been followed diligently enough to improve opportunities for transit. There are very few examples of shopping centers built in Boise in the past 10 years, for example, that are truly transit-friendly.

Shopping centers still have huge parking lots between the stores and the street. Cul-de-sacs are still common and many subdivisions still have just one or two ways in and out. Pedestrian- and transit-friendly development styles are mandated downtown only.

We’ve made some improvements, like mico-pathways in subdivisions and pedestrian networks inside parking lots. But from a practical, on-the-ground perspective – and compared to the examples people a century ago bequeathed us – transit remains a vestigial part of our built environment. (See “The Next American Metropolis” by Pete Calthorpe to learn how transit oriented developments can work in modern times.)

I fully support the vision for transit in the Treasure Valley and I believe local-option taxation authority should be granted. But we should realize that for more than a decade, we have had the local mandate to require transit-friendly development and have made little apparent progress.

Martin Johncox is a former Statesman reporter who covered local government and urban planning. He is currently a public relations consultant at Alexander and Associates, focusing on land use and public policy.