Commentary

Rail works there ? but here?

In this article Wendell Cox finds a place where light rail delivers on its promisesâ�?��??Japan. In Tokyo and Osaka commuter rail accounts for about 60 percent of travel. Compare that to America’s top transit market, New York, where transit’s share is under 10 percent. In many American cities transit’s market share is anemic, often under 1 percent. Two other points where Japan’s rail system differs from the American experience: 1) Most service is provided by private rail companies. 2) Rail actually earns a profit. (Make that a hefty 30 percent profit.) Why does transit work so much better in Japan? Here’s Cox: ? Historically, much lower personal income in Japan kept automobile ownership at lower levels, so transit demand is higher. ? Unlike U.S. and Western European transit systems, profitability makes the transit systems of Japan sustainable. Westerners have yet to learn that massive subsidies are not the path to larger transit market shares. ? Urban expressways in Japan require heavy tolls–something generally not found either in the United States or Western Europe. ? The suburban rail systems in Japan also operate thousands of buses (more than 10,000 in Tokyo and 2,500 in Osaka), which circulate through neighborhoods and deliver people to the rail stations. ? Downtown employment in the Japanese cities is far greater than in the U.S. The Tokyo Yamanote Loop has double the employment of Manhattan, while the Osaka Loop has three times the employment of Chicago’s. ? The suburban rail systems of Japan were built concurrently with or ahead of the suburban sprawl (both Tokyo and Osaka sprawl extensively), and system upgrades were made to maintain their superior speeds. The dense mesh of service provided by these systems is simply not to be found in the West. All of these factors have played an important role in the success of Japanese transit. But the principal reason for the success of the Tokyo and Osaka systems is their competitiveness with the automobile. Average transit speeds in Tokyo and Osaka are 1.5 times that of the automobile. In both places, traffic intensities are well above that of Los Angeles, the worst in the U.S. Neither Japanese urban area has the high-quality roadway system of Los Angeles to handle the demand (though the Japanese roadways do compare well with Atlanta). American cities are generally more suited to buses. No, not the painfully slow ones that are often regarded as mobile holding tanks for weirdos. Clean, fast, reliable buses that aren’t subject to the kind of congestion everyone else has to face. Bus Rapid Transit seems to be doing quite well in Boston. In the four months since converting from conventional bus service, the Silver Line saw weekday boardings increase from 7,550 to 11,800. Since June, ridership on a new rapid bus line in San Francisco is up 18 percent. How did it happen? Through a combination of factors, the buses on the new line complete the route 20 percent faster than the limited line buses did. First, the rapid-bus line has only 25 stops, whereas the old limited line contained 45. The new line also does not follow the extremely precise schedule common in bus travel. Instead of having to arrive at stops at a scheduled time, which often means stopping a bus or slowing it down to avoid arriving at a point ahead of time, drivers complete their routes as quickly as possible. To help riders keep tabs on the rapid and local buses, AC Transit is installing electronic signs at stops that inform riders when the next bus is due to arrive. The rapid-bus line also manipulates traffic signals to decrease travel time. As the buses approach traffic lights, emitters installed on the vehicles send infrared signals to detectors placed on the mast arm of traffic signals. Depending on several factors, a traffic light will remain green until the bus clears the intersection, or a red light will turn more quickly. To improve rider comfort, AC Transit purchased 15 low-floor buses from Koningshooikt, Belgium-based Van Hool for the rapid-bus line, so that passengers do not have to climb stairs to enter the vehicles. Add up all the factors, and the agency hopes the rapid buses will dramatically improve the bus-riding experience. “It’s like you’re in your car driving down the street, says Jon Twichell, AC Transit’s transportation planning manager. “It’s not stop-start, stop-start.”

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.