Steel Wheels on Steel Tracks

Around 1910 in North America, you would have seen three different sets of “railways” in the typical urban area. First, for local needs, there were streetcars (or trams, as they’re known in Europe). Second, for regional needs, there were interurbans: streetcar-like (in some cases, multiple units or coaches intermixed) self-propelled units that ran on private rights-of-way at higher speed to connect more remote communities to the city core. Today’s light-rail transit (LRT) is a cross between these first two: capable of running on city streets, or on rights-of-way at higher speed between “stations”, as Spacing reports on New Jersey’s transit options. Finally, there were the major railways, providing inter-city transport. Although trucks or horse-drawn wagons were the vehicles for freight inside the city or for short distances, both interurbans and inter-city rail operated significant freight haulage as well as passenger services.

By 1961 this was pretty much all gone, when the Pacific Electric — at one time 1,600 miles of interurban service in the Greater Los Angeles area — shut down the last of its lines. Few cities kept their streetcars: Toronto, Pittsburgh, San Francisco. Inter-city passenger service declined into near irrelevance. The automobile and truck were king.

Compare this to Europe, where trams are still a part of most major European cities, and hundreds of passenger trains a day service major centres.

What makes steel wheels on steel tracks such a powerful choice is the sheer efficiency of it all. Especially when electrically powered (so that the actual coaches can easily be self-propelled with electric motors), it takes a fraction of the energy to move the same load as it would to do it by internal combustion engines. (Even a diesel locomotive, which is also an internal combustion enginer, is far more efficient than the same loads being moved by road: there is very limited friction between the wheel and the rail, unlike a tire against pavement.)

Europeans known that rail services of all types must be subsidized, on both a capital and an operating basis, if they are going to provide the level of service required to make them useful. To be an alternative to the automobile, there must both be many lines, and they must run frequently (longer distances at higher speeds, once every quarter-hour; urban streets with stops every 2-3 blocks, certainly less than 10 minute service, rising to every 2-3 minutes for busy routes).

Looking back at 1910, suburbs were clustered around stops – about a 1/2 mile radius around them (in other words, a reasonable walking distance carrying objects. The land further out, or in-between stops placed more than one mile apart, was rural, and effectively worthless by comparison.) Different routes should travel portions of the same lines, in order to minimize the number of changes a passenger needs to make (we generally will make one transfer, but not three or more).

While Europeans have certainly become car owners and frequent drivers, many Europeans avoid driving to work to this day. Cities remain more concentrated as a result, and far more vibrant. Where would you rather live, outside the peripheral road that surrounds Paris, or inside it? Due to the ease of transport in cities, the European “low rent” district is not downtown, or close to it, but out beyond the urban transport grid. (And Paris does not use surface trams, although the Métro runs through so many of the districts in such interlaced patterns that it is, within the city itself, effectively a sub-surface tram system; coupled with the RER (the interurban trains) the three-tier pattern can still be seen.)

Laid on top of this now in many European situations is a fourth tier: the very high speed rail option. (It reminds me of living in The Hague in the late 1990s: buses and trams operated in the city by HTM: Haagsche Tramweg Maatschappij, using a Stripkaart system for payment that actually allowed the use of other municipal systems in The Netherlands when you travelled; Interurban LRTs run by various municipal transit systems in cooperation and across municipal boundaries; inter-city trains operated by the national rail system, Nederlands Spoorwagen, with two rail stations in the city; and the high-speed Thalys from Amsterdam to Paris stopping at NS Holland Spoor station, with connections at Brussel for Germany (Köln), England (London via Eurostar) and on to Paris (to the SNCF’s excellent network of TGVs).) I used them all regularly: they were efficient and effective for work travel (and I did a lot of that: over 90% of my work life was spent going from city to city at that time). The entire system operated using electrified resources except the local buses, which meant a power plant investment (choose your fuel: theirs at the time was fossil fuel, with the coal fields of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany and the Rotterdam Oil Terminal close to hand, but it could have been nuclear, or wind plus a backup, easily).

In other words, low overall use of energy for transportation depends on public infrastructure, not on “happy motoring” via the hydrogen highway, the electric car, or other fantasies from the technology world. They may work, but they are not as effective in the short run (the next thirty years).

As the age of cheap petroleum draws to a close, tightened demand and shortening supply will combine to form a rapid increase in the cost of fuels — and wild swings in price as the market will have very little slack to absorb small changes in availability on a day to day basis. This will make the commuter suburb, with its zoned layout requiring driving for every little errand and mandatory commuting to work for most (yet with low density, working against a viable public transport grid), an economic trap.

It is for this reason that I think North America and Australia will have a far worse time of it than will Europe. (Britain is an interesting case: it has the bones of a European infrastructure, but currently operates on a quasi-North American financial model. It is likely to “Europeanize”, but the question will be “when”.) North American suburban life will be unsustainable far sooner than will European “village living, city working”.

With that unsustainability will come social unrest and economic ruin for many families.

Politicians, of course, love to drag out the hoary election promises, from “high speed rail in the corridor” (pick your corridor, it depends on where the voters live), to subways everywhere (because the surface streets are for cars). What gets built, at the end of the day, are new roads, mostly because we insist on thinking of growth as the raison d’être at the municipal level, and newly developed land seems somehow more like “growth” than densifying, intensifying, and repairing the places we already have.

Meanwhile, on the energy front, politicians are constantly promising removal of the apparently hated facilities (“no more nukes”, “no more coal”) and replacement with fantasyland (see the wonderful series on energy futures done by Tom Murphy at UCSD on his blog Do the Math: the summary is linked and each topic can be traced back once you’re there). Simple things like electrified rail systems of all sorts with a dual plant investment (redundancy and fuel choices) to drive it to start building for a city-state region is apparently not exciting enough.

Or is it that asphalt is let by public tender and maintained by public tender, but traditionally rail development — especially on dedicated corridors off the streets — has traditionally been done by private enterprise aided by land transfer (not nearly as many connections there for the budding election fund)?

Properly, densification of the streets — New Urbanist infills, rezoning to establish housing above retail as an option (the traditional Main Street that is “zoned out of existence” almost everywhere now), mixed communities (all of these are certainly expressed in the Green City 2020 approach Vancouver, BC is taking, and changing taxation from building-centric or mixed systems to pure land value taxation, as Pittsburgh, PA has used to maintain a transit-rich (rail-based) urban area that has revived post-the collapse of big steel, can initiate the transformation of the fabric that exists into one where ridership for the infrastructure that’s built builds over time. (This is unlike subway construction, where, as Steve Munro illustrates, forty-five years hasn’t converted an old “streetcar neighbourhood” into the dense high-rise environment required to provide development associated with the promise of subways (mind you, the subway in question is overloaded — but only because no other cross-the-city lines were ever built, and because when this was built the excellent lesson of interlaced express and local service as found in New York’s subway wasn’t followed).

Indeed, industry can also be accommodated, as the Volkswagen plant in Dresden, Germany demonstrates. (The choice to use the same gauge for all systems would also allow for mixed-use, e.g. delivery via traditional freight trains and final delivery via the LRT civic infrastructure.)

The fact is that we will need to lower our energy consumption for transportation. Any person seeking your support who can’t articulate an integrated picture is blowing smoke and promising unicorns. The promise of pretty candies and fancy ways to not have to deal with change may be enticing, but it must be resisted — and the work done to prepare our communities for the future. This is a prime example, in fact, of the kinds of investment that do make sense even in tough economic times, through turbulence, and through the need to rid our governments of functions and promises that can’t (fiscally) be kept as made.

After all, Canada’s transcontinental railway system (the Canadian Pacific, much of the Grand Trunk [now CN], and the Intercolonial [now also CN]) was built during the Long Depression of 1873-1896. We wouldn’t have a country from sea to shining sea if our forebears — who had far less to work with — hadn’t just got on with the job, deferring gratification and “business as usual” in order to accomplish the steps that were needed.

We ought to be doing the same.


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