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Design to Fail: Of Supertrains and Sprawl

Adam Eran: One recent such sprawl-enabling designed-to-fail project is California’s proposed high speed “supertrain.” This would take years and cost billions to build.

We must face the prospect of changing our basic ways of living. This change will either be made on our own initiative in a planned way, or forced on us with chaos and suffering by the inexorable laws of nature." – Jimmy Carter (1976)

Cities built as sprawl require every trip of significance be in an auto. If CO2 pollution and foreign oil consumption increase, then every commute is a failure. Why design such failure into the fabric of our cities? Says one sprawl critic (Jane Jacobs): “The pseudo science of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric put it bluntly, [sprawl planners] are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting.”

One recent such sprawl-enabling designed-to-fail project is California’s proposed high speed “supertrain.” This would take years and cost billions to build. After that, it might provide expensive rides between northern and southern California for a few passengers, but would still require auto commutes to and from the terminal, and rental cars when people arrived at their destination, at least outside San Francisco.

The alternative would be increasing local transit and building the land-use to support it. I say do that first, then build high-speed rail. This alternative is far cheaper and more effective. How expensive would local transit amenities be, compared to sprawl infrastructure? Portland built its entire 300-mile network of bikeways for the cost of a single mile of urban freeway.

Curtiba bus stop

Curtiba bus stop

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We could even emulate Curtiba (Brazil). Curitiba received funding for a “heavy rail” project like high-speed rail, but discovered that heavy rail is ten times more expensive than light rail, and light rail is ten times more expensive than buses, even with dedicated busways. They wanted the 100-times larger transit coverage buses offered, but were concerned about the downside of buses: the expense of hiring drivers. While trains can add capacity for a single driver by adding more cars, buses were confined to 40 - 80 passengers per driver. Not having learned “design to fail,” Curtiba worked with bus manufacturers to make “accordion” buses--that triple the length of a bus for a single driver, carrying nearly 300 passengers.

As part of their design-to-succeed, Curitiba’s land use planning also supports ridership. The stops are nice, not just a sign stuck in the side of the road. City planning insures many potential transit customers are near the stops too, and have sidewalks that reach them -- none of which is true for sprawl

Incidentally, far from being a “big government” solution, Speedybus itself is a public-private partnership. The public owns the routes and sets fares; private investors own the buses. Far from being subsidized, the system generates nearly two million fares a day from a city of 1.8 million, and turns a profit.

Designing cities to succeed, and support transit is not rocket science; we did so before 1950. The elements of success include pedestrian access, particularly to transit stops, so … sidewalks and mixed-use neighborhoods. Mixed-use means stores, residences and offices, perhaps even light industry, all coexist in a single neighborhood. So when you get off the bus, there’s actually someplace to go.

The good news is that recent moves by California’s legislature like AB 32 make such mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly planning something we’ll see more of....if we don’t spend all our money on expensive politically “sexy” design failures like high speed rail first.

Adam Eran