The Metro section of the Washington Post on Sunday offered a tantalizing array of nuggets to get me thinking about how to get people from here to there in a densely populated area with frightful traffic congestion.
The answer, it seems, is not mass transit. At least not until people believe it will actually get them where they need to be in a reasonable amount of time. Mass transit works in New York City and London because people have come to rely on the system and the system is reliable. In most other places in the United States, mass transit has yet to become a dependable replacement for a trusty old automobile.
Take Dr. Gridlock's column about the Washington D.C. Metro's woes. He tallied 14 incidents of delayed and off-loaded trains in a single day. All you have to do is talk to regular Metro users to get a laundry list of problems they have encountered doing that most basic of things—commuting to work.
Then there is Robert McCartney's column chronicling the inability of Montgomery County, Maryland to put a rapid transit bus network in place. The troubles revolve around how to pay for the extra lanes the buses would use, how many lanes it should have, and whether the neighbors will allow the roads to be widened. A dilemma evolved when planners start projecting how many people would use the buses. If residents don't think the buses will get them there faster than their cars, they won't use them. And if they don't use the system, the county can't pay for the project. And then congestion only gets worse as the empty buses gobble up one or two road lanes. In other words, the only way the rapid transit bus line comes to fruition is with total buy-in from the county residents. And it's not there.
Finally, there is the tangentially related column by longtime D.C. resident and commentator Jonetta Rose Barras about whether the city's building height limits should be scrapped. City administrators say they want to allow taller buildings to accommodate "future population growth." And my first thought is…not unless you also do something to ease the traffic. Metro's problems over the last year do not give me confidence on that front.
Why is it so difficult to win public support for mass transit projects? Is it because they take so long and cost so much money? Is it because nobody talks about how great they are and only point out the problems? Is it because people generally would rather drive their cars? How can metro planners make mass transit reliable enough to work for a big part of the population? How much mass transit has to be available, and how much speedier must it be, before people will ditch their old commuting methods? Is that even a worthwhile goal?