US passengers railways are bad, but Americans don’t care. Why?

22/11/2019 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
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The webzine Vox explains that Americans view public transit as a welfare system for those who can’t afford to drive. Public transport is considered as the transport of the poor, of the one who has not succeeded. The same picture is applied to passengers railways.

Metrolink trains at Union Station, Los Angeles, 2012 (photo Don Barett via flickr license)

Americans often cite the extent of big cities and the long distances to travel to justify the use of the car. This myth does not hold when compared with Canadian cities or European cities like London, Paris or Berlin. If you talk about long distances, this is true that some countries have extensive high-speed rail networks, in Europe and in Asia, but all are wealthy and small countries comparing to USA.  Spain, France and Japan are at the top of that list, but Germany and Italy, also have a lot. USA are not small, and some cities are separated by (very) long distance, like Chicago to Denver, Miami or San Fransisco.

That’s not the best playfield for railways. In Europe and Japan, this is more easy than in USA.  Multiple high-population cites are within a few hours of each other.  High-speed rail was born in Japan to connect the massive metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka.  The routes that followed, like Paris-Lyon , Milan-Rome , Cologne-Francfort, Brussels-London, Madrid-Barcelona and many others, all follow the same pattern of size and distance, explains CNet.

Los Angeles…. (photo by Steven Straiton via flickr license)

On a smaller scale, one can believe that the size of large American cities can favor large suburban railway networks, as there are in Tokyo or in all cities in Europe. This is however not the case. American urban development has long pursued its own distinctive course — an urbanism without limits, with endlessly extendable boundaries.  Residential real estate speculation has always powered the economy in USA. This is not be surprising. The land surrounding American cities wasn’t tied up by royal or state ownership like in other part of the world, and its easy exchange allowed for unprecedented urban expansion — called today as ‘urban sprawl’. This does not worry the Americans: they continue to live with the second industrial revolution. We often forget that the United States is an oil country, both as a producer and as an importer. All American social life is based on oil, cars and the myth of Detroit. To convey the idea of ​​giving up one’s car seems an impossible task in the United States. Automobiles contributed to consumers by providing access to low-cost goods and services. Retailing concepts such as supermarkets and big-box stores could not exist without automobiles, and they have dramatically reduced consumer costs and provided people with a wider variety of goods and services. These are all so usual things that no American thinks of modifying.

Santa Monica (photo Robyn Beck AFP getty images)

A glimmer of hope could appear with the « new hype » of the sharing economy. But it’s also a urban myth. According the Accel + Qualtrics Millennial Study 2017, nearly 80 percent of millennials own cars and 75 percent of millennials who don’t own a car aspire to own one now. Other millennials may not want cars, but they hate use buses and subways. Why millenials (and others too) love electric scooters? Because they can easily ride with them, with a top speed of 15 to 30 mph, to any destinations 5 miles out, and travel faster without schedule, when they want, day and night. This makes public transport services so « vintage », too old-fashioned for those people who live with 21st century technologies. The image of the old yellow bus that drops you off and picks you up from your school is present in all American culture, including in all movies. That’s not the best picture for an ideal public transportation. “People are just trying to find ways of getting from A to B faster,” said Rasheq Zarif, Deloitte’s leader in future of mobility tech. It is kind of a « prime time » for ride-hailing and micro-mobility transportation, he said, with the prevalence of smartphones and advancement of technology like GPS, as more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas that are crowded with cars.

NQR Line, New York 2012 (photo by Stephen Rees via flickr license)

American mentality

As always, politicians hang on to the will of the people and industry. We can understand them. Why should they spend billions of dollars on commuter trains while large private companies offer a full range of individual transportation, such as Uber, Lyft and many others companies. Of course, this « new economy » is once again prized by the chic clientele which don’t use cars, but forgets the daily life of the working classes or blacks of the suburbs. The british newspaper The Guardian told that researchers at North Carolina State University found that traveling by scooter produces more greenhouse gas emissions per mile than traveling by bus, bicycle, moped or on foot. Some surveys show that about one-third of e-scooter rides replace automobile use , while nearly half of scooter users would have walked or biked instead.  About 10% would have taken public transit, and the remaining 7% or 8% would not have made the trip at all. The new economy is good for « American business », but not for the climate. In the United States, everything seems built to avoid as much as possible what is collective in terms of travel. It’s part of the American psyche: individualizing the clientele.

The other problem is that American cities are now so extensive that it is too late to create new electrified rail lines as there exist in Asia and Europe, where history has favored the maintenance of urban rail lines. American cities are newer and have been designed for the automobile culture. There are no more spaces to build a railroad network, unless many buildings to be destroyed. Building underground costs billions of dollars. Many Americans say it’s not worth it for their city, and they don’t compare with European cities that all have a long history that american cities don’t have. Europeans examples can not repeated in USA. But why can not Americans take the example of Asian cities, such as Singapore? These are recent and very modern cities, but they have not been built on the sole parameter of the automobile.

MetroLink in California. Diesel train near the sea, Laguna-Niguel, 2017 (photo by Kat Avila via flickr license)


Is there no opportunity to change things? We do think so. However, we must be careful not to bring Asian or European practices as it stands, on American ground. It may not work correctly. It is essential to define a transport authority by city and region: it exists in every city in the United States. This authority should no longer regard the railroad as a « something special » but as a mobility solution. The train is not more specific than a metro, except for certain regulations and technical norms. It is up to the federal government to relax some rules: why do we have to apply the same heavy freight standards to suburban passenger trains? These are two totally different things. It is essential to define a new energy policy, by abandoning the use of diesel by Americans railways in the suburb areas. Electricity is a « green energy » which can be produce by many sustainable sources today. It is essential to define a new railway policy where the suburban trains are priority and have if necessary their own dedicated tracks. It is essential to award, by city, not for the entire country, an experimented operator with the railway environment to operate by contract a railway service for a 10 or 15 years period.

Finally, it is essential to change the mentality: the state or municipalities are not there to « rob taxpayers », they are there to help all citizens to have a better life. Which means that taxes must be collected but they must also be judiciously invested, to prove to people that their taxes are used for something useful. America without oil culture, that’s the first step… 🟧


In depth focus:

>>> When a british region presents a rail program of 3.5 billion investments

>>> Sweden, the success of a regional railway system

>>> Germany: When a Region makes his ecological policy with 27 hydrogen trains

>>> How a german region manages his railways ?

>>> Singapore without cars : between dream and reality

MetroLink and electrified lines at Chicago station, 2017 (photo by Marco Vech via flickr license)