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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.

There’s been a lot of emotion but not enough light on the issue of a transit center in downtown Boise.

Hoping to get the project shovel-ready to take advantage of a federal grant that expires this year, officials from the Ada County Highway District, City of Boise and the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho are putting the proposal on a fast track. It would bring pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and busses together in downtown Boise, and a rail system could someday hook up to it. More than just a bus stop, the idea is that people could switch between different transportation modes at the center.

I think it’s a great idea and should move forward.  But, as The Boise Guardian says, “…it looks to us like a recipe for disaster jamming passenger cars, buses, and pedestrians into a narrow side street.” Yes, possibly – or it could be a recipe for success, assuming that moving more people in and out of downtown is a good thing. It all depends on how it’s done.

As a public relations consultant, I have to say the agencies could be doing a better job at making their case, especially in the media. So far, print and broadcast media coverage has been your basic journalistic tale of people fighting some proposal with which they are unfamiliar.

My unsolicited  advice: local government PR people should be presenting examples of where these kinds of transit hubs have been successful, why they have been successful, and how they could be successfully adapted to downtown Boise. This is a great opportunity to invite the media into explanatory stories and show under what conditions transit hubs benefit the public and merchants in other cities.

Here are some good examples the folks at COMPASS have refererred me to:

  • The Bellevue Transit Center seems close to what is contemplated for Boise, maybe a bit longer, but it looks nice.
  • The Courthouse Square transit center in Salem, Oregon, is part of a larger project, including a 150,000 square-foot office complex, but it’s a good example of a transit center in an urban setting.
  • The Plaza is the hub for downtown Spokane’s transit system and is designed to host many arts, entertainment and holiday events.
  • Denver has proposed the Union Station, which would involve rehabbing an old transit station for the modern “multimodal center.”
  • Eugene, Oregon, has a very attractive transit center.

Some of these plans are much more than what we are propsing. But I include them to show that other similar cities have successfully pulled off ambitious and successful transit center plans.

Of course, questions about the public process will remain. Also, historical preservation needs will have to be accommodated. But for the time being, local governments could make their job easier, and improve public understanding, job giving their transit hub proposal some grounding and context.