Going from smallest to largest…
We’ll use the Capitol Building of the United States of America as our reference point, because a large percentage of Americans have visited it at least once in their lives, and if you haven’t, you need to.
LEVEL 0: Private cars
First of all, we will always have cars. 20% of Americans live in rural areas, and sometimes a car really is the only way to get around. Cars create traffic and take a lot of room to store in cities. If they use an internal combustion engine they are noisy at any speed and always polluting. Cities should be designed in ways that make car usage the least convenient way to travel, and frankly unnecessary as much as possible. Neighborhoods should be built in ways that allow people to live, work, play, and shop, within a 1-mile radius of their home as much as possible. This builds community, and also encourages healthy activities like walking, which is the best form of transit. Car usage is a necessary evil for some trips and should be generally discouraged by making car trips unnecessary.
LEVEL 1: Walking
The best way to travel is walking. Walking takes practically no space, it is healthy, and it’s better than free because of its health benefits. You should do it. Cities should be built to encourage walking, and it should be the obvious and best way to get around as much as possible in as many places as possible. Walking is great for trips under 2 miles.
Walking from the US Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial is a reasonable walk.
LEVEL 2: Biking
Biking is fantastic. Practically no space is needed in order to store a bike, they don’t pollute, they are extremely quiet, and they are reasonably fast. When I bike around my city I can sometimes go up to 50 KM/h anyways, so biking is frequently just as fast as driving. Biking also can be just plain fun. For trips of up to 40 KM bikes really should be the preferred method of travel. Our cities need to be designed so that for every arterial there should be a convenient path that can serve bikes and pedestrians so they can safely travel around the city. This eliminates congestion, saves space in the city which doesn’t need to be used for parking, and helps generate livable, walkable cities.
Anywhere in the District of Columbia or Arlington.
LEVEL 3: Buses
Buses are the best form of travel for routes that are either low demand or extremely local. Frequency, price, and speed all impact ridership. Running buses on local routes is their best use case. Buses start to fall apart when the route is in very high demand and go a longer distance. Bus lanes cost about the same amount to build as tracks, for lower speeds, less capacity, and less frequency. They should always be avoided. When buses are frequently backing up in the downtown of your city (Seattle)… your system is failing, and it’s time to move to level 4.
Capitol building to Mount Vernon, relatively low demand, and too far to reasonably bike. Take the blue line first, and then take the bus the rest of the way.
LEVEL 4: Local trains
Local trains are critical to the infrastructure of any city greater than 500,000 people. Trains are best used on high-demand, medium to long-distance routes. Local trains should provide easy, fast, frequent, and high-capacity access to all large areas of the city. Buses will bring people from the train stations to their local neighborhoods. Working together, buses and trains create a powerful system that efficiently moves people around their city. Local trains focus on the entire metropolitan region.
Example routes from our capitol building:
- Dulles international airport
- Downtown Baltimore
LEVEL 5: Regional/high-speed rail
You will have trains which bring people to other cities around your city. There will be limited stops inside of a metropolitan area, and those stops will be transit hubs for local rail (in big cities) or bus terminals (in medium-sized cities with fewer than a million people). Regional rail connects both large and small cities. Rail works best for distances under 1000 km.
High-speed rail should be built when the capacity of the line requires lots of trains to be moving in order to fulfill demand. These are easy to spot because there is a lot of competition for flights on these routes. The faster the train, the longer the distance can be served until flights become more time economical. Estimate that each trip takes 2 additional hours when sitting for a plane compared to a train when a high-speed rail line should already be around 500 km away by the time the plane takes off.
When initially building regional rail (which is where the US is today) it makes sense to focus originally on the high-demand routes, but in the long run, it should be connecting the whole country.
Example routes from the capitol building:
- New York
LEVEL 6: Flying
Flying will always be part of our system. It should be limited to overseas flights and extreme coast-to-coast routes. Flying should be discouraged as much as possible since it is more expensive, carries fewer people compared to a train per vehicle, and is worse for the environment.
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco
The Network effect
There are several critical parts of any transit system. Speed, fares, and delays impact ridership because there will always be competition from cars and airlines. But by building a strong network, we can end up with a solid system that works as a single organism.
Local governments have the responsibility to set up a transit network that works for them. Overcrowding will be minimized. A good city is where the wealthy use transit. Once people arrive in your city, there needs to be an easy way to move around it without using a car.
But local governments can only do so much. How do you get to your main city? After I move to North Carolina this month, how am I going to visit Washington, DC? This is where having great regional rail is critical to a functioning system. People are more likely to use transit after they reach their destinations if it was easy to get there using transit in the first place.
State governments can only do so much as well. California is building HSR, and someday it will be completed. But California is unusual in terms of how many people it has, and how it has two major cities just the right distance away to make a highly valuable high-speed rail route. Almost every other high-quality route (outside of Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio) requires interstate cooperation in order to be feasible.
The Federal government has a critical role to play in ensuring our infrastructure serves both freight and passenger mobility. Federal money is and should continue to be used to improve local transit links. Federal money can be used to densify and improve neighborhoods, but just densifying neighborhoods and making them walkable isn’t enough. We also need to look at it in a holistic fashion, and this means we must build good transit so moving around cities is convenient, fast, affordable, safe, and environmentally friendly. This needs to be a national priority. We cannot have good local neighborhoods without good transit, because without good transit, everyone will still have a car, and that jams our cities up with unnecessary cars, making densification difficult. In order to build the best transit system, we need to have neighborhoods that are built in a way that makes it easy to serve them to get around their cities. It needs to be easy for people to get to their closest bus stop in order to increase ridership.
Americans love false choices, it seems to be a national sport.
We can have both walkable mixed-use neighborhoods and good transit at every level, or we can have neither.
That is our choice.